Donald Runnicles
Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
15 August 2003
Usher Hall Edinburgh
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerEric Halfvarson
LohengrinTorsten Kerl
Elsa von BrabantHillevi Martinpelto
Friedrich von TelramundJukka Rasilainen
OrtrudPetra Lang
Der Heerrufer des KönigsJames Rutherford
Vier brabantische EdleCampbell Russell
Declan McCusker
Paul Anwyl
David Morrison
The Guardian

Wagner’s operas seem so rooted in north European mythologies that most people forget that one of his aims was to re-create the spirit of Greek tragedy. This concert performance of Lohengrin did, however, achieve a sense of both the ritual and the deadly inexorability of classical drama.

This was partly due to Donald Runnicles’s conducting, and partly thanks to his decision to deploy both the Edinburgh Festival and Philharmonia choruses to form a choir of nearly 200. The end result consisted of a series of terse dialogues, punctuated by monumental, hieratic choruses, as Runnicles slowly ratcheted up the tension, welding the score’s disparate elements into a whole. For once, nothing seemed out of place in an opera that can swerve between longueurs and overblown grandeur. The BBC Scottish Symphony played with precise clarity rather than self-conscious Romantic opulence.

The cast, though variable, probed the work’s psychological ambiguities with great subtlety. Hillevi Martinpelto was a very mystico-erotic Elsa, so that you were never quite sure whether Torsten Kerl’s Lohengrin had appeared in answer to her prayers, or been summoned by more ambivalent forces in her sexual imagination. Kerl, beefily handsome, has a lyrical, ethereal voice, more suited to Mozart than Wagner, and was showing signs of strain by the end.

Pitted against them were Jukka Rasilainen’s Telramund and Petra Lang’s Ortrud. Rasilainen, weasel-like in appearance, avoided portraying Telramund as a stereotypical baddie, turning him into an unusually complex figure, at once violent and cowardly. Some might consider Lang’s voice too beautiful for Ortrud, though she seduced both Rasilainen and – more tellingly – Martinpelto with an insidious display of voluptuous tone before letting rip at both of them with thrilling ferocity – a superb performance that confirms her status as one of the finest Wagner singers of our time.

Tim Ashley | Monday 18 August 2003


This concert performance was placed on the ’free’ evening between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – for those Wagnerians with the stomach for five Wagner operas in six days it proved a hugely enjoyable performance.

As at their Proms performance of Strauss’s Elektra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra clearly relish playing under Donald Runnicles – he conducted a wonderfully fleet and non-portentous account of the score which can seem overblown and over-romanticised. The string sound was full and lush, and the brass and the woodwind seemed to be enjoying their big moments, particularly during Elsa’s procession to the Minster in the middle of the second act. The off-stage brass effects were also very effectively managed with the bands being either outside the doors to the stage or behind the huge chorus. I should mention is was particularly good to hear the newly-restored Usher Hall organ in it’s contribution. The whole performance had a sweep and energy that was most compelling. Runnicles is also most considerate to all his singers who responded in kind.

Of all Wagner operas it is in Lohengrin where the chorus plays the most significant part in the drama, either commenting on the actions and decisions of the protagonists, or voicing their own feelings at the unfolding events in writing that is very complicated, particularly for the men’s double choir. The massed voices of both the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Chorus were lusty and responded enthusiastically and visibly to this operatic challenge under the guidance of the sympathetic Runnicles. A few of the edges were a little rough, but that added to the drama of the moment in some respects. At times the sound was positively overwhelming.

Of the soloists, James Rutherford set the high standard at the start with his full-voiced, robust and authoritative Herald, showing that this part can be enormously rewarding if adequately cast. As the King, Eric Halfvarson revealed a huge and focussed Wagnerian bass and commanded the scenes where he acts as judge over the warring factions surrounding Telramund and Elsa.

Telramund was wonderfully sung by the Finnish baritone Jukka Rasilainen, who proved to be a superb interpreter of the part vocally and dramatically. His voice is rich but at the same time has a wonderfully incisive and cutting quality, and has a huge amount of power, as he demonstrated when accusing Lohengrin in the later stages of Act Tow with the entire orchestra playing at full stretch behind him. Rightly he did not play Telramund as a traditional operatic ’baddy’, but as a nobleman in hopeless thrall to his wife Ortrud, and misguidedly doing what she requests in the belief it will restore his lost honour.

Rasilainen was most fortunate to have the formidable Petra Lang playing Ortrud as his partner in crime, apparently for the first time in her career although one would hardly guess it. On stage from the start of Act One, despite having little to sing, she dominated proceedings by her body language and force of personality before she had sung a note. In Act Two she was wonderfully imperious and insinuating in her duets with Rasilainen and their partnership had a real dramatic intensity, even when they were confined to the margins of the stage responding to the drama being enacted by the other characters – lots of baleful staring etc. Vocally she is an Ortrud to die for, as Telramund does, as she has the range and heft of voice to encompass all facets of the role. Her “Entweihte Götter” was truly electrifying and her calls of “Elsa” weirdly and dangerously inviting (fantastic woodwind playing at this moment too). Her howl of defeat at the end of the opera was another riveting moment. This was a truly great interpretation by a great singer in her prime.

Hillevi Martinpelto’s Elsa was another formidable interpretation. Dressed in vivid green this was not the over-romanticised rather wet Elsa of tradition, but a rather strong lady, particularly in her defence of her knight in Act Two. It was sung with real beauty and lyricism and she has exquisite pianissimos. In her concert interpretation one could not be sure whether Elsa was hallucinating her Lohengrin or whether he was a true flesh and blood character, and the interaction between her Elsa and Petra Lang’s Ortrud was a convincing confrontation. I’d like to see them both together playing their roles in a full staging.

Torsten Kerl played Lohengrin, a youngish tenor to be singing the role and his biography would lead one to believe that to date he has only sung smaller and lighter Wagner roles and lots of Mozart. This was apparently his first attempt at the role. Sturdily built, he looks the part, but on this showing one could only assume that he should wait a few years before trying it again. He did not appear to have the necessary lyricism for the romantic aspects of the role nor the heft for the character’s more dramatic outbursts and any sense of other-worldliness was decidedly lacking from his interpretation. He did not interact with his colleagues very much and seemed constantly concerned for his pitch (which was fine), or with clearing his throat which was obviously giving him cause for worry. If he was ailing, as I suspect was the case, then some announcement should have been made. As it was he constituted the major weakness overall.

Nonetheless, the opera emerged as an exciting music-drama.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
HO 3559
Technical Specifications
160 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 234 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast of a concert performance from the Edinburgh International Festival