Semyon Bychkov
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
14 May 2009
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerKwangchul Youn
LohengrinJohan Botha
Elsa von BrabantEdith Haller
Friedrich von TelramundFalk Struckmann
OrtrudPetra Lang
Der Heerrufer des KönigsBoaz Daniel
Vier brabantische EdleHaoyin Xue
Ji-Min Park
Kostas Smoriginas
Vuyani Mlinde

The good news is that, musically, this proved a strong Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov, who has recently recorded the work – a rarity indeed in these straitened times – elicited some of the best playing I have heard from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Perhaps most remarkable were the sweet-toned strings, their presence immediately signalled in a luminescent first-act Prelude; so sweet, indeed, did they sound that one could have believed oneself in Vienna. Each section, however, provided aural delight, the woodwind delectable and the brass warm-toned, never brash. Bychkov’s shaping of the work’s three acts was very fine; there was certainly none of the stopping and starting that have so disfigured a number of recent Wagner performances at Covent Garden. My only real criticism was a very small number of occasions, most notably at the end of the first act, when the tone was lightened in conjunction with a greater metrical rigidity. Claudio Abbado showed a good number of years ago that one can present a somewhat Italianate Lohengrin without cheapening Wagner in a Verdian direction. These were minor blemishes, however, to a generally excellent account.

Johan Botha was a successful Lohengrin, at least in vocal terms. Apart from a few instances when he seemed to be tiring, during the second act, his tone was well projected and his line well moulded. It is only really by comparison with Klaus Florian Vogt’s truly stellar performance in Berlin earlier this month that one might register any vocal disappointment. The other reservation one might entertain is his stage presence. Far be it from me to suggest that one should prefer singers on accounts of their looks, or even their figure, but in physical stature, Botha is something of a throwback – and a half? – to an earlier age, with acting skills to match. A charismatic hero he is not.

Edith Haller displayed considerable virtues – as well as slightly but fatally flawed virtue – as Elsa. Her occasional veering towards a slightly more Italianate form of expression might conceivably have bothered some but her attention to melodic concerns was far from out of place here. Haller has a beautiful voice but is clearly also an intelligent singer. Petra Lang proved an estimable Ortrud. If she could not banish memories of Waltraud Meier in this production six years ago, that would have been to ask the impossible. Lang may not quite possess Meier’s extraordinary stage presence but she performed her role very well, with commendable attention both to detail and to the longer line. If Ortrud did not make as strong an impression as she might have done until later on, that was largely a matter of being hamstrung by so inert a production. Gerd Grochowski was due to assume the role of Telramund later on in the run but Falk Struckmann’s tracheitis ensured an earlier Royal Opera debut for Grochowski. It was a pity not to be able to hear Struckmann who, time and again, has shown himself to be a fine Wagnerian (although only once at Covent Garden, as Amfortas). Grochowski confirmed the impression I had in the Berlin performance previously mentioned: he sings musically but can sometimes be a little overpowered by the orchestra. A certain degree of weakness might be considered in character but Friedrich needs at some level also to be a credible alternative leader. Kwangchul Youn had also appeared in Berlin, as King Henry. His performance here was more mixed; indeed, his surprising insecurity in the later stages of the first act made me wonder whether he was ill, although no announcement was made. Choral singing was of a predictably high standard, if without quite the edge of Eberhard Friedrich’s State Opera Chorus for the Unter den Linden house.

So, mostly good news concerning the musical performance. There remains to be considered, I am afraid, Elijah Moshinsky’s production. It is not only in the light of Stefan Herheim’s magnificent achievement in Berlin that Moshinsky’s effort pales; I had sought in vain to discern any dramatic insight when the production was last mounted in 2003. ‘Traditionalists’ might, I suppose, like this lifeless pageant, in which absurd Christian and pagan totems are wheeled on and off, a risible combat scene makes one wonder about – but finally decide against – comedy having being intended, and the direction of the chorus is more or less limited to walking on and off and having each member cross himself. (With respect to the chorus, Herheim’s virtuosity had been almost incredible.) However, even the notoriously unadventurous Covent Garden audience was distinctly lukewarm in its appreciation of the director when he appeared on stage. Most productions, I admit, would look tired, were they revived after more than thirty years, but I cannot imagine that this had anything to offer even in 1977.

The ‘idea’ is clear enough, that of a clash between paganism and Christianity. This is undeniably present in the text but in itself does not get anywhere near to the heart of Wagner’s dramatic concerns. It is rather as if someone were to claim that Tosca is ‘about’ the French Revolutionary Wars. One might, of course, make something rather interesting out of a clash of belief systems, especially given the undeniably nationalistic aspects of Lohengrin – more prominent than in any other of Wagner’s dramas – but there does not seem to have been made even the slightest attempt to address any issues with contemporary resonance, or indeed to explore any issues at all. I do not mean to imply that the work must be updated, or even pulled unduly in our direction; however, remnants of paganism in tenth-century Germany are not in and of themselves, I suspect, of particular interest to many audiences today. Nor were they to Wagner.

Lohengrin is not an historical drama; it is a myth with aspects of historical drama attached, somewhat uncomfortably so. This Lohengrin, by contrast, appeared almost as if it were a parody of Meyerbeer. If only it had been, it might just have been a little more interesting. Let us hope that, the next time Wagner’s Romantic opera returns to the Royal Opera House, it is in a new production. The wildest excesses of Regietheater, even Calixto Bieito at his most puerile, would be preferable to this. A somewhat odd hint of the latter – not really, I know – came at the end with the return of Gottfried and a prolonged, distinctly sexual embrace between him and Elsa. I really did not know what to make of that at all, despite the references in the programme to Freud and taboo; it seemed to come from nowhere, whereas one could have predicted it only too readily with Bieito and his ilk. The totems must also, I assume, have pointed to Freudian influence, but I did not feel this reflected or explored in the action; again, I can only wish that I had.

One final matter: many of the programme essays were of a very high standard. John Deathridge and James Treadwell are always very much worth reading on Wagner. Likewise Patrick Carnegy on production history, although I thought him perhaps a little too diplomatic in his reference to Moshinsky. But if Wagner himself is to be given space – and it seems to me an excellent idea that this should be so – can it please be in a new translation? To present him even in an adaptation from William Ashton Ellis will make the composer, especially to those less versed in his prose works, seem like a raving lunatic. Ellis is often surprisingly accurate but his style is so bizarre that it is best restricted to those who know the German already.

Mark Berry | Royal Opera House, London, 27.4.2009

The Guardian

The Royal Opera’s latest revival of Lohengrin is exceptionally beautiful to listen to, which, paradoxically, is its weakness as well as its strength. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, it’s a performance of refined surety, rooted in singing and playing of considerable splendour. The orchestral sound, combining richness of colour with warm clarity, is ideal for a work that examines the fringes of mystical experience. The choral singing has great fire and majesty, and, apart from a couple of forgivable moments of effort, Edith Haller and Johan Botha sing the roles of Elsa and Lohengrin with great tonal glamour.

At a time when too many Wagner performances are ungainly, the considered poise of this is wholly admirable.

Yet the beauty comes at the price of a lack of tension. Sound and drama are occasionally prised apart. You wish Bychkov would sometimes let rip a bit more. Botha, big and bulky, achieves a vocal characterisation of considerable subtlety, but looks awkward on stage. Haller’s expressive body language, in contrast, isn’t backed up by equivalent vocal intensity. Not for the first time, we find ourselves looking to Ortrud and Telramund – Petra Lang and Gerd Grochowski – to supply the excitement.

Even here, things aren’t plain sailing. Lang is thrilling and steely, but overdoes the grimacing. It is Grochowski, scheduled to sing Telramund later in the run but substituting for the indisposed Falk Struckmann on opening night, who gives the most complete performance: his voice is a bit small, but this a superbly realised study of pride and cowardice. Elijah Moshinsky’s 1977 production, meanwhile, has dated design-wise, though its depiction of primitive Christianity under threat from pagan irrationalism is still remarkably persuasive.

Tim Ashley | Wednesday 29 April 2009

The Telegraph

Lohengrin can seem an interminable experience – but the Royal Opera’s version is highly seductive.

Paid-up fanatic Wagnerian though I am, I always slightly dread Lohengrin – or Slow ‘n’ Grim, as a waggish friend of mine unforgettably rechristened it. Lohengrin himself is too much of a fairy-tale figure to command much interest, and once the exquisitely aqueous prelude is over, the first act is a bit of a bore: Heinrich is the dreariest of Wagnerian bass monarchs, and the panoply of summons and fanfares and processions that surround him is dramatically inert. The Royal Opera’s announcement that the score would be played without the usual cuts did nothing to cheer me up.

But in the event this strong revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 32-year-old production – still austerely handsome and atmospheric in John Napier’s wintry designs – proved a great pleasure. Chief among its virtues is Semyon Bychkov’s masterly conducting, which held the firm purposeful pace that Wagner undoubtedly intended and secured some rapt playing from the Royal Opera’s strings. Lohengrin is neither slow nor grim when it’s interpreted at this high level: it’s seductive and alluring.

The cast was more than the sum of its parts: first-night wobbles will, I guess, steady themselves in subsequent performances. With his massive physique, Johan Botha cut a distinctly unromantic figure as the Swan Knight, but his heady sweetness of tenorial tone was a delight and “In fernem Land” was sung with near-perfect poise and legato.

His Elsa was the Italian soprano Edith Haller, making her Covent Garden debut. She bears remarkable resemblance to two celebrated Elsas of the recent past, Gwyneth Jones and Gundula Janowitz, offering a gracious stage presence and some warmly generous singing marred by a rather erratic control of pitch. A nasty crack at a climactic point of Act 3 provoked a sharp intake of breath from the audience.

As the witch Ortrud, Petra Lang sneered and leered with her usual gusto, but memories of the peerless Waltraud Meier in this meatily melodramatic role are not easily erased and her final outburst fell horribly out of tune. Gerd Grochowski, a last-minute substitute for Falk Struckmann, sang firmly as Telramund, but needs to project more menace. Kwangchul Youn made a dour Heinrich, Boaz Daniel an incisive Herald.

Some of the best singing came from the chorus, magnificently groomed and integrated by Renato Balsadonna, one of the jewels in the Royal Opera’s crown.

Telegraph Rating: * * * *

Rupert Christiansen | 28 Apr 2009

Opera Today

I first saw this production in Manchester in 1981: I loved it then and love it now, despite the present hero’s un-Heldentenor qualities when compared to the glorious Peter Hoffman of yore.

There were a lot of first-night nerves around, unsurprisingly given that King Heinrich, Telramund, Elsa and the Herald were all house debutants, but they all showed great star quality to match that of the more experienced Ortrud and Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov elicited some of the most polished and exquisite playing from the ROH orchestra that I have heard in a long time; overall this was a wonderful evening, a shining example of what the Royal Opera House is all about.

The shimmering strings of the overture, so delicately shaped and daringly leisured in tempo, were somewhat compromised for many in the audience by the noisy actions of some latecomers, but the conductor sailed on as if surrounded by total silence. An aside, but what can be done about the appalling manners of some of the (supposedly) ‘great and good?’ It wasn’t just the noise—just to add insult to injury, as Lohengrin launched into ‘In fernen Land’ a man leaned over his wife to ask their friend, not exactly sotto voce, ‘So, where shall we eat after the show, then?’ Presumably these were amongst those like the bejewelled crinkly lady whom I heard complain loudly that she ‘got offered so many free tickets here that I just can’t fit it all in.’

The production is now 32 years old, yet it still looks fresh and logical for the work, with those prostrate nuns and gilt-encrusted icons reminiscent not so much of tenth century Brabant but ‘Old Mother Russia,’ and the muted colour tones of white and grey subtly contrasted with the splashes of red and gold. Some might consider the presentation of the swan as a projected motif underwhelming, but to me it was just right, with the Knight’s entrance via the trapdoor still producing a frisson—and let’s face it, this solution avoids any possibility of having to enquire ‘Wann fährt der nächste Schwann?’

More than any other of Wagner’s operas, ‘Lohengrin’ is all about the singing, and here this production excels. Johan Botha does not possess the ideally heroic stage presence for the title part, nor would he be accurately described as a Heldentenor, yet his singing is always expressive, finely phrased and sensitively shaped. Lohengrin is a rarity amongst Wagner’s major tenor roles in that his music is far more often marked to be sung mezzo-forte rather than forte, and Botha offers a hero more in the lyrical mould of a Slezak than a belter, and his characterization is all the better for it. ‘Mein Lieber Schwann’ was achingly poignant, reminding me of Rosvaenge’s recording of it, and ‘In fernen Land’ was as affecting as it should be, the gentle pressure on ‘Taube’ and the heroic strength of ‘Sein Ritter ich’ parts of a seamlessly dramatic whole.

His Elsa was the beautiful South-Tyrol soprano Edith Haller, in a house debut performance which revealed a sweet, bell-like purity of tone, with the capacity to melt one’s heart in phrases like ‘Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu’—‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ was also a model of clarity and touching sweetness. At present, however, her voice is ‘merely’ lovely and crystalline, lacking in some colour and variety, and she found the last act a challenge in parts. Nevertheless, a notable debut from a soprano whom we will look forward to hearing in many other rôles.

Petra Lang’s Ortrud is a known quantity, yet she never ceases to surprise with the vehemence and commitment of her acting and the commanding quality of her singing. You half expect her to utter remarks like ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts. Unsex me here!’ as she launches into one of her tirades, and I can’t recall having experienced quite so marked a shiver down the spine by anyone else’s singing of the phrase ‘der Rache süsse Wonne’ or quite so definite a frisson during her ‘Entweitert Götter.’ Her husband was the fascinating baritone Gerd Grochowski, who looks a bit too noble for the weak Telramund, but whose singing, firmly in the Fischer-Dieskau mould, was supple and expressive. Indeed, there were times when one felt more sympathy for him than one probably should.

Two more house debutants gave impressive performances of the rôles of Heinrich I and the Herald. This was the first time I’ve heard the Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, whose sound may lack a little in volume but whose expressiveness and dignity were a joy—he may have missed a little of the king’s grandeur here and there, but he more than made up for it with the Prayer, with genuinely noble heft at ‘weil unsere Weisheit Einfalt ist.’ I look forward to hearing his Commendatore and Méphistophélès. Boaz Daniel’s Herald was another noble assumption, his proclamations of ‘Nun höret Mich’ true clarion calls.

The Chorus sounded a little underpowered at the beginning, but rose to great heights at ‘Wie fasst uns selig süsses Grauen!’ and ‘Wir steh’n zu dir.’ They were matched by orchestral playing of real majesty, the strings and trumpets especially covering themselves in glory. It’s now three years since Semyon Bychkov conducted here, and I hope it won’t be that long again before we experience his blend of absolute control and sympathetic support for singers.

A great evening—and mercifully delivered uncut, with further performances on May 3rd (matinee), 5th, 8th, 11th, 14th and 16th. It is an almost full house for each night, but there are a sprinkling of seats to be had as well as Day tickets—if you haven’t booked yet, you are strongly advised to do so now, to experience a ‘Lohengrin’ which comes as near to expressing what Wagner called ‘one of man’s earliest poetic ideals’ as I can imagine.

Melanie Eskenazi | 29 Apr 2009

Financial Times

Conductors of Wagner’s “romantic opera” divide into two camps: those who hear it as a seamless arc decorated with confrontational drama and choral tableaux, and those who treat it as a succession of scenes and highlights. The real Lohengrin conductors, such as Semyon Bychkov, who is in charge of the Royal Opera’s latest revival, stand in the first camp. They show their colours most tellingly at the heart of the second act, where Elsa’s theme is picked up and “vocalised” by the orchestra: the music needs to grow organically out of the preceding scene, balancing tension and radiant legato.

On Monday Bychkov unfolded it like a central sustaining line for the whole act, in a way that silhouetted the work’s architecture from first note to last. That is a rare achievement, and it was echoed at numerous other points in the performance. The benefit for the listener was that Wagner’s Italianate inspiration – the soft serenity of the string palette, the moulded colours and climaxes – shone through the cloak of Germanic declamation. Rarely does the Covent Garden orchestra play with this degree of confidence.

The cast, too, responded to Bychkov’s subtle dynamic control by singing their lines, not belting them. The central quartet is one of the most evenly balanced that Elijah Moshinsky’s venerable 1977 staging has seen. Johan Botha delivers the swan knight’s monologues with musicianly taste and elegant timbre: there’s not a hint of strain, and the static quality of his demeanour is well masked by a production that never asks too much of its protagonists, keeping the action simple within an ambience of superstitious medievalism. Edith Haller makes a convincing Elsa, thanks to her bell-like soprano and gracious presence. Gerd Grochowski’s Telramund is serviceable if hardly threatening, and Petra Lang’s Ortrud creates a vividly declaimed portrait of ambition and spite. Kwangchul Youn is the dignified King Henry, Boaz Daniel a less-than-imposing Herald.

The soft-grained choruses (chorusmaster: Renato Balsadonna) are one of the performance’s many musical virtues, and it’s a sign of how masterfully Bychkov chooses and modulates his tempi that, despite his opening-up of the traditional cuts, this Lohengrin has fewer longueurs than many shorter performances. ★★★★☆

Andrew Clark | 28 Apr 2009


Wagner’s Lohengrin is back on the Covent Garden stage in a 1977 production by Elijah Moshinsky with designs by John Napier. If the critics were discordant on different aspects of the performance, it was Semyon Bychkov’s take on Wagner’s work that found them all unanimous in their praises.

Tim Ashley of The Guardian comments vividly on the orchestral sound connotation that, ‘combining richness of colour with warm clarity, is ideal for a work that examines the fringes of mystical experience’.

Rupert Christiansen writes in The Telegraph that the conductor’s masterly interpretation was one of the highest points of the performance. He declares that Bychkov served well Wagner’s score and the instrumentalists played with accurate pace and intensity. According to Christiansen, these characteristics made of this Lohengrin a ‘seductive and alluring’ one.

In the Financial Times, Andrew Clark praises especially the orchestra which played with confidence under Bychkov’s secure baton. Clark finds this a ‘rare achievement’ and he develops further: he explains that the melodic line was performed so that it ‘silhouetted the work’s architecture from first note to last’.

Edward Seckerson of The Independent is enthusiastic too and confesses that the conductor and his orchestra’s ‘searching and excitingly trumpet-topped account of the score’ is one of the reasons that make of this Lohengrin a noteworthy performance.

Even Barry Millington, who is very sceptical about the whole production, does not hide the musical achievement of the conductor. In the Evening Standard he writes that ‘Semyon Bychkov is clearly in love with the score and brings exquisite refinement to its mystical, enchanted passages’. Nonetheless, he senses some ‘self-indulgence’ in the conductor’s interpretation that vitiates the dramatic aspect of the piece in the end.

The Guardian adds an insightful corollary to the fineness of the performance, saying that ‘Sound and drama are occasionally prised apart’. Ashley explains that at times action was sacrificed for the sake of a superb musical performance. This apparently paradoxical analysis is justified by some discrepancies in the singing and acting for instance, if Botha’s interpretation is vocally excellent, ‘he looks awkward on stage’, Ashley comments.

However, Johan Botha’s Lohengrin convinced most critics. The Telegraph writes that he ‘cut a distinctly unromantic figure as the Swan Knight’; Christiansen also adds that ‘his heady sweetness of tenorial tone’ made of his interpretation a pleasure to experience’.

Seckerson of The Independent is equally thrilled by Botha’s performance, and he praises his account of ‘the sometimes inhuman demands of the title role’. These remarks are echoed by George Hall: writing in The Stage, he states that Botha offers ‘a performance in which his ample, silvery voice is never compromised’.

Semyon BychkovSome of the critics are more suspicious though. In The Times, Richard Morrison praises Botha’s ‘crystal-clear tenor’, but is dubious of his charisma. The same remarks are associated to Edith Haller’s Elsa, whose singing ‘is eerily disengaged from such concepts as emotion or theatricality’, he claims.

Edit Haller’s performance was the inspiration for nuanced opinions. The Independent says that ‘she has the ideal sound for the role’, due to her neat and ‘white’ colour. Although, some lack of vocal personality was perceptible, he adds, especially in the confrontation with Botha’s imposing Lohengrin. The Guardian, though, does not agree: Ashley remarks that both Haller and Botha performed their role ‘with great tonal glamour’.

The Evening Standard’s negative reading is reflected in the analysis of the singing, too: ‘Johan Botha’s sensitively projected Lohengrin failed to demonstrate the textual subtlety of which he is capable’, Millington states. Edith Haller did not convince him either, although Petra Lang’s Ortrud ‘stole the show’. The Times too praises an outstanding Petra Lang, ‘whose venomous, scenery-chewing Ortrud turns every consonant into an act of malice’.

In fact, it is Lang in particular that convinced the critics. The Guardian writes that she and Gerd Grochowski ‘provide a consistent acting support’. The FT is equally positive: ‘Petra Lang’s Ortrud creates a vividly declaimed portrait of ambition and spite’.

For The Guardian, it is Grochowski who offers the most satisfying and well-rounded performance: ‘his voice is a bit small, but this a superbly realised study of pride and cowardice’. The Telegraph says that he ‘needs to project more menace’, while the Evening Standard admires his efficacious portrayal of the ambivalence of his character Telramund.

The FT summarizes a generally positive performance of the singers, stating that ‘The central quartet is one of the most evenly balanced that Elijah Moshinsky’s venerable 1977 staging has seen’.

The Chorus was the recipient of huge acclaims. The Guardian applauds its interpretation filled with ‘great fire and majesty’. The Telegraph is even more complimentary about chorusmaster Renato Balsadonna’s excellent work, and its critic finally comments that ‘Some of the best singing came from the chorus.’ The FT too lists ‘The soft-grained choruses’ among one of this performance’s many musical merits, and again praises Bychkov’s masterly modulation of the tempi.

As for the staging, Moshinsky’s production is more problematic. The Guardian comments that it ‘has dated design-wise’, although Ashley still finds it ‘persuasive’. Both The Independent and The Times are amused on the Batman-style logo to indicate Lohengrin’s arrival on the swan. Nonetheless, The Times adds that it must be acknowledged that this device was thought ‘very high-tech and daring’ in its original 1977 context.

George Hall on The Stage is more positive, and he claims that Moshinsky’s ideas are still effective in ‘conjuring a vision of medieval chivalry’ and in depicting the contrast between the ‘dying pagan world and a half-mystical, half-superstitious Christianity.’

On the other hand, the Evening Standard offers a severe reading. He focuses on the possible meaning of the production, finding this Moshinsky’s staging unsuccessful in engaging with Wagner’s piece. He develops his argument referring to the failure of the original concept: ‘Elijah Moshinsky’s staging, devised as an economy measure in 1977, never dug very deep into the work’s symbolic, psychological or ideological substratum’.

Despite nuanced opinions on the singers’ delivery and on a production behind the times, this Lohengrin was received as a musical accomplishment. Bychkov’s contribution was particularly significant and his efforts were fundamental for the success of this interpretation. All this at Covent Garden until 16 May.

Marina Romani| 4 May 2009

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A production by Elijah Moshinsky