Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
11 February 2011
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerGeorg Zeppenfeld
LohengrinJohan Botha
Elsa von BrabantEmily Magee
Friedrich von TelramundGreer Grimsley
OrtrudMichaela Schuster
Der Heerrufer des KönigsLester Lynch
Vier brabantische EdleRené Barbera
James Kryshak
Sam Handley
Evan Boyer
Chicago Classical Review

A knight to remember: Botha leads a magnificent cast in Lyric Opera’s “Lohengrin”

There are a myriad of reasons why Lohengrin should not work for a modern audience. Stiff tableaux-like action and long static scenes dominate this uneasy combination of romantic fairy tale and symbolic fable of a mysterious knight who saves an innocent threatened maiden. Imbued with Christian mysticism and an impenetrable nexus of Norse and German mythology, the noble, tragic hero serves as a stand-in for Wagner at a time when the composer was besieged by enemies and felt his music was largely unappreciated.

Yet Lohengrin is the first work of Wagner’s artistic maturity, a rich and sumptuous score with a complexity of interlocking motives and chromatic audacity that point the way forward for Tristan und Isolde and the Ring operas to come.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its first production of Lohengrin in three decades Friday night at the Civic Opera House. And despite being handicapped by a dated, visually drab staging, the company has fielded a superb cast of Wagnerians—no mean feat these days—that served the composer’s music extraordinarily well and made for as majestic a night of Wagner singing as one is likely to hear anywhere.

As the title 10th-century knight who rescues the unjustly accused Elsa, the rotund Johan Botha may not cut a physically imposing figure, but vocally the South African tenor showed all the power and dramatic heft necessary for this tortuous role.

Possessed of a big, vibrant tenor, Botha was up to all of this role’s considerable demands—dignified and heroic in the court ensembles, sensitive and nuanced in his intimate scenes with Elsa, and showing a toughness—and some impressive sword moves—in his confrontations with the villainous Friedrich. Botha seemed to tire a bit at the end of the long evening but still managed to rise to his big moments in the final scene, bringing just the right mix of sadness, vulnerability and determined strength to In fernem Land and Mein lieber Schwan.

It was great to have the gifted Emily Magee back at the Lyric Opera as Elsa, the former Ryan Opera Center alumna’s first company appearance in 13 years. The American soprano possesses the requisite vocal purity and luminous expression for the innocent Elsa, some thinness at the very top apart. While always engaged in the action, dramatically her Elsa seemed a work in progress, McGee at times overdoing the neurotic qualities and making Elsa seem more unhinged than spiritually ecstatic.

This has been a wonderful year for villains at the Lyric Opera and the current production offers two terrific ones. As the evil Friedrich of Telramund, Greer Grimsley was impressive in doing his snarling nasty, yet the American bass-baritone also sang with a surprising lyrical quality and ease of production in his deep and imposing voice.

As Ortrud, his wife and partner in malicious co-dependency, Michaela Schuster made a strikingly successful company debut. The German singer brought an intensity of focus to the manipulative pagan character—who is much stronger than her weak-willed husband—and sang with a luxuriant mezzo-soprano voice in her long Act 2 scene with Elsa.

Georg Zeppenfeld was a sonorous and dignified King, Lester Lynch, last seen in Porgy and Bess, a notably strong-voiced Herald, completing a cast without a single weak link.

The same couldn’t be said for the chintzy-looking Minimalism of John Napier’s sets. The traditional production wasn’t new when the Lyric last presented Lohengrin in 1980 and now this descendant of Wieland Wagner’s postwar stripped-down style looks decidedly aged. Uncluttered it may be, but the mostly bare stage and lack of scenery looks cheesy with the scrim for most of Act 1 making the action too obscure. Apart from swordfights that needed more speed and intensity, director Elijah Moshinsky moved his characters naturally and believably, avoiding visual ennui in the static action. But where was the swan?

Also while it’s clear the company is trying to save money where it can, couldn’t they have found some Malabar costumes for the four excellent onstage trumpeters? Clad in modern black and positioned just outside the action, the brass players looked like a group of jazz sidemen who just happened to drop into 10th-century Brabant for a gig.

Apart from being too quick on the trigger at the climactic moment when Lohengrin reveals his identity, Sir Andrew Davis led an alert, flowing and rhapsodic account of Wagner’s extraordinary score. At times, Davis’s penchant for fleet tempos sacrificed the spiritual element, yet his sense of the long line and musical integrity skirted the occasional musical squareness and Davis drew gleaming and richly responsive playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

There are few things in all opera more sonically thrilling than the massed ensemble scenes in Lohengrin. Kudos to out-going chorusmaster Donald Nally and his singers for their stellar work in achieving such polished and glorious corporate vocalism in music that is just as demanding as that of the principals.

Lawrence A. Johnson | Sun Feb 13, 2011

Chicago Tribune

Never mind the cheap production – Lyric’s ‘Lohengrin’ is pure Wagnerian gold

Part fairy tale, part historical mythology, part tragic love story, Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” poses a serious question: Can absolute trust and unconditional love exist in a world where there are no absolutes and almost everything is conditional? Most of us can guess the answer without even seeing the opera.

But see this “Lohengrin” you must.

Lyric Opera, which has not staged Wagner’s first unqualified masterpiece for an unconscionable 31 years, has done itself proud with the production that opened Friday night at the Civic Opera House. The company has cornered the international market with its cast of A-list Wagner singers, headed by Johan Botha as the mystical swan-knight. His definitive, splendidly sung portrayal dominates the more than four-hour performance, but it is a first among equals.

It would appear that, having spared no expense when it came to the singing, conducting, orchestral playing and choral singing – all first-rate – Lyric had only a pittance left to spend on the actual production. Lyric has been marketing this as a “new production.” It is nothing of the sort. Elijah Moshinsky created it for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1977, and Londoners have seen numerous revivals since then.

The show is a concert in costume of Christian and pagan iconography, kitschy projections, quasi-abstract minimalism and slo-mo pageantry, set inside a big white box. Not even the artful lighting of Christine Binder can disguise the chintziness of John Napier’s sets, devoid of magic as they are. At least Napier’s rich costumes, with their heavy robes, breastplates and medieval veils, give the audience something to look at.

Rather than grappling with the work’s psychological and symbolic layers, Moshinsky simply lets the story unfold amid a passing parade of reliquaries, palanquins, totems and other relics of German medievalism. Parts of the staging are remarkably inept, as when the director all but hides Elsa’s lifeless collapse behind a scrim, sabotaging one of Wagner’s most ineffably moving tableaux.

Fortunately, on the musical side Lyric gives confirmed Wagnerians plenty to glory in and newcomers to the German master’s operas plenty of reasons to join the fan club.

Thus far Botha has sung only Italian roles at Lyric, so his portrayal here of Lohengrin, the mysterious knight of the Grail whose search for a woman who would give him unconditional love takes him to the innocent Elsa, was greatly anticipated. The South African Heldentenor delivers the vocal goods magnificently. He is the finest exponent of the role today and he sounds as fresh at the end of a long, vocally taxing evening as he does at the beginning.

Botha commands not only the stentorian heft and stamina to ride the big orchestra but he also shapes the lyrical pages with subtle colorings and dynamic shadings that honor the bel canto style of early Wagner. Lohengrin’s Act 3 narrative, “In fernem Land” – minus the second half that few opera houses ever observe – fills the house with golden Wagnerian sound.

Botha is a bulky man, which renders Lohengrin’s attempts at swordplay almost comical. But he knows how to make his body work for him on stage, a fact particularly evident in the knight’s tender-to-tense exchanges with Emily Magee’s Elsa in their bridal chamber scene, when his beloved insists on her right to know her husband’s name and origins.

The American soprano, a world-class alumna of the Ryan Opera Center, makes an affecting Elsa, bringing to the role a shimmering vocal radiance and warmth, plus a touching innocence and vulnerability. She is everything one could want in this challenging part. (Amber Wagner will take over the role for the final performances March 5 and 8.)

Pitted against the protagonists are the Teutonic Macbeths – Greer Grimsley as the ambitious Telramund and Michaela Schuster as his scheming consort, Ortrud. The American bass-baritone makes a memorable villain, darkly malevolent in voice and manner, with impeccable German diction and projection. He is perfectly matched by Schuster, who gives a tour de force performance in her Lyric debut. This Ortrud is a venomous monster of calculation as she manipulates her weak husband and the trusting Elsa. She would chew scenery if there were any around to chew.

The sturdy German bass Georg Zeppenfeld, also a house debut, makes an authoritative King Heinrich, and the American baritone Lester Lynch intones the Herald’s pronouncements with clarion conviction. The men’s chorus and the various smaller vocal ensembles acquit themselves splendidly in this, their most extended and demanding assignment in many a season.

Andrew Davis’ decade-long journey through the major Wagner operas at Lyric has been one of increasing mastery, and he is masterful indeed here. The music director makes his orchestra the pivotal force in the drama Wagner intended it to be, and they play superlatively for him. Too bad the exquisite luminosity he summons from the violins in the Act 1 Prelude is nearly ruined by rude coughing from the audience.

It remains only to be said that Peter Bloor’s projected English titles are a godsend in this text-laden music drama.

Now, let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 31 years to hear Wagner’s enthralling masterpiece again at Lyric Opera.

John von Rhein | February 12, 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, PO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 478 MByte (MP3)
A production by Elijah Moshinsky