Daniel Barenboim
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala Milano
7 December 2012
Teatro alla Scala Milano
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerRené Pape
LohengrinJonas Kaufmann
Elsa von BrabantAnnette Dasch
Friedrich von TelramundTómas Tómasson
OrtrudEvelyn Herlitzius
Der Heerrufer des KönigsŽeljko Lučić
Vier brabantische EdleLuigi Albani
Giuseppe Bellanca
Giorgio Valerio
Emidio Guidotti
Mostly Opera

At 7 pm, German soprano Annette Dasch received a phone call in her Berlin home. If she could possibly come to Milano and sing Elsa in the new Claus Guth production of Lohengrin the next evening for the season opening of La Scala in Milano, as Anja Harteros was ill? To be televised directly, obviously. 3 hours later she was on the plane. The next day, she had a 2 hour session with Claus Guth and 10 minutes with Daniel Barenboim. She had worked with Barenboim before, but not in Wagner operas, as well as with Claus Guth. And she had sung Elsa to Jonas Kaufmann´s Lohengrin in 2009 in Bayreuth, in a production where Elsa is a disturbed character, not entirely unlike her characterization in this production.

Claus Guth is particularly known for emphasising the darker sides of standard repertoire work – just take a look at his Nozze di Figaro or Cosí fan tutte, both available on DVD. His favourite century is the 19th century (source: himself) and setting his Lohengrin in a repressive Biedermeier society seems just like the thing he would do. We are in an open space surrounded by balconies and doors. A piano and some stretches of grass represent the past with frequent flashbacks of Elsa playing the piano under Ortrud´s rough guidance. Elsa and her brother were repressed (if not physically abused) as children. It is this repressive society that Elsa longs to leave, and thus she conjures up Lohengrin, a sickly, neurotic wretch whom she clearly does not love and finally rejects. Also frequently seen on stage: A child with swan feathers and Lohengrin more often than not curled up in a fetal position. According to an interview Claus Guth´s agenda evolved around how people arrived at their own happiness after a deprived childhood. He raises plenty of questions, however. Such as why Lohengrin has to be so sickly? While it is excellent with a staging raising plenty of questions I ultimately felt that the lack of consistency and interpersonal relations (especially between Elsa and this sickly Lohengrin) were the weakness of this staging.

For Jonas Kaufmann, the ultimate romantic hero, one could wish for him to appear in a slightly more traditional production or at least one where he is allowed to show the romantic/as written in the score sides of Lohengrin: In 2009 in Bayreuth he was in the middle of a rat experiment, later that year in Munich he was a carpenter, and here in Milano he is a neurotic fragment of Elsa´s fantasy, stripped of all pretenses, rolling on the floor curved in fetal position.
His singing, however, is formidable and he just seems to get better and better. A couple of years ago one would often hear that he could not go on singing like that, with his shaded tenor pushing for the high notes. That criticism is nowadays seldom heard. Anyway, I for one, have always thought that, unlike Villazon, his singing seems rock solid. Really he is virtually beyond competition as Lohengrin today.

Annette Dasch is a formidable actress, and creates an intensely moving portrayal of Elsa, quite better than her performance at Bayreuth. However, legato lines and blooming topnotes still are not her specialty and Anja Harteros remains the better singer of the two while Annette Dasch clearly is the superior actress.

René Pape was superb in what is a medium-opportunity role for him and Zeljko Lucic was luxury casting as Heerrufer.

As for the socalled villains, they were unfortunately disappointing. Tomas Tomasson was heavily overmatched and Evelyn Herlitzius, though a fine actress, was wobbly and frankly unpleasant to listen to. Could Barenboim not have called Waltraud Meier for this, really?

The Scala orchestra plays formidable for Barenboim. As I noticed some years ago when he conducted Tristan and Isolde here, there is a particular expansive sound to the orchestra, not heard when he conducts his Berlin hometown orchestra.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Jonas Kaufmann: 5
Annette Dasch: 4
René Pape: 5
Tomas Tomasson: 3
Evelyn Herlitzius: 3

Claus Guth: 4
Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 4

Financial Times

No other opera event in the world can possibly generate the public excitement of La Scala’s annual season-opener. It is not only the feast day of Milan’s patron saint and the social event of the year on the Italian calendar, it is also an act of participatory public theatre. Protesters, police, onlookers, press, politicians, celebrities, bankers and socialites all passionately play their appointed parts. What happens at La Scala on December 7 is both game and fight, a projection screen for the state of the nation. With ticket prices up to €2,400, the event boasts a plush exclusivity that is almost as far removed from the everyday world of opera-going as a trip into space. There are officials with plumed helmets, there are jostling crowds of screaming camera crews, and the glossy programme books are so hefty that they could be used as murder weapons.

It is hard to imagine how an evening of opera – even one of Wagnerian length – could be worth the price of a second-hand car. But in any case, there is a reasonable expectation that whatever is offered will be more or less as good as it gets.

Last Friday at La Scala, it really was. Controversies over the choice of repertoire were well founded – this is the third Wagnerian season-opener in six years at La Scala, which has everything to do with Daniel Barenboim’s ability to call the shots, as well with the imperatives of international co-productions. But the Scala audience can be forgiving, especially for a Lohengrin of this calibre. Intendant Stéphane Lissner’s appointment of Claus Guth and his team reads like a summation of all he has done in the past seven years to win over the Milanese audience for opera stagings that are complex, profound, and well-made – a very far cry from the stand-and-deliver style of the Muti era. What makes a world-class cast for Lohengrin today? Jonas Kaufmann in the title role seems a no-brainer – not even those who quibble over the lieder-singer ease with which he navigates the role’s manifold difficulties could have failed to be entranced by the ethereal beauty of his upper register, the seductive warmth of his chest voice, his magnetic charisma and musical acumen. René Pape as Heinrich is authoritative yet ambivalent; Evelyn Herlitzius makes an intense, damaged, vulnerable Ortrud, Tómas Tómasson delivers a Telramund of arresting sensitivity, more wounded pride than evil rage. But the undoubted star of the evening was Annette Dasch, leaping in at slightly less than 24 hours’ notice for the ailing Anja Harteros.

Guth’s production is a bleak, meticulous examination of Bismarck-era militarism and its emotional consequences. Elsa and Gottfried are children of a system so ruthlessly strict that both retreat into an inner world of fantasy, dissociation and hysteria. This is a society where madness is regarded with dawning scientific curiosity but treated with barbarity, and Christian Schmidt’s set is a masterpiece of Gothic associations, from the mad-house to the false promise of freedom on a reed-fringed shore. Dasch’s performance in this context is a breathtaking feat of improvisation, guts and professionalism; she moves as though the production had been conceived around her, and sings with unerring accuracy and unfettered fervour.

Lohengrin is Barenboim’s party piece, from the ethereal delicacy of the overture to the marshal thunder of Heinrich’s army, and the Scala orchestra plays for him as if it were born to it. If it has to be Barenboim, it may as well be Wagner.

Shirley Apthorp | December 10, 2012

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Media Type/Label
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128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 188 MByte (MP3)
A production by Claus Guth
Also available as telecast