Lohengrin

Mark Elder
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Date/Location
5 June 2003
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
Heinrich der VoglerRené Pape
LohengrinRobert Dean Smith
Elsa von BrabantMelanie Diener
Friedrich von TelramudSergei Petrowitsch Leiferkus
OrtrudWaltraud Meier
Der Heerrufer des KönigsRoman Trekel
Vier brabantische EdleAmos Christie
Peter Lurié
Martin Robson
Jonathan May
Gallery
Reviews
The Guardian

Elijah Moshinsky’s productions may never be the last word in postmodern trendiness, but they wear exceptionally well. His staging of Lohengrin was first seen at Covent Garden in 1977 and was revived three times in the 1980s and 1990s. Now it has returned to the Royal Opera House once again, wearing its quarter-century lightly, and powered by some exceptional musical performances.

Some visual details jar a bit – the wigs really do make all the men look as if they are auditioning for a vacancy in Iron Maiden or Metallica – but the directness and power of the drama are still caught. The symbolism of John Napier’s intelligently spare sets catches Wagner’s curious mixture of paganism and Christianity exactly: crucifixes jostle with totemic symbols, and icon-like images adorn the banners. Yet the king, Heinrich, rules from a throne built on skulls and a straw man is hung from one of the portable crosses.

It is Mark Elder’s conducting, though, that binds this revival together. Everything has its place in his dramatic scheme of things, be it the brassy pageantry of the big set pieces or the dark hues of the second-act plotting. The results are thrillingly vivid, and, in a score that relies heavily on rapt, transparent string tone, the ROH orchestra plays wonderfully for him.

If Elder’s is easily the best performance in the ROH pit this season, then Waltraud Meier’s portrayal of Ortrud is pretty nearly the finest on stage. She compels attention through the sheer concentration of her body language (even through the revelations and explanations of the last scene, when she has nothing to sing until the final few moments), and every line she has to deliver is weighted with precisely the right amount of disdain, fury or false humility. It is a perfectly drawn portrait of a monster.

Elder and Meier are the truly compelling elements, but the rest of the cast is not far behind them. Robert Dean Smith’s Lohengrin may not be beautifully sung, but he steadily invests the character with more and more detail, and has the audience hanging on his every word when his identity is finally revealed. Melanie Diener’s statuesque Elsa had her moments, but seemed nervous, and will surely improve through the run. Sergei Leiferkus and René Pape reprise their roles from the 1997 revival; Leiferkus’s Talramund is a bit of a cartoon villain now, but still imposing, while Pape’s Heinrich is noble and steely, every phrase charged with presence. An outstanding, unmissable revival.

Andrew Clements | Thursday 5 June 2003

The Evening Standard

Magic is in the music

The chief attraction of this revival of Lohengrin was always going to be the cast. Elijah Moshinsky’s staging, with sets by John Napier probably looked quite avant garde when new in 1977.

Now the empty box into which rather rickety symbolic totems are pulled has a workaday efficiency but a rather low quotient of romance – either medieval or courtly – on which Wagner’s 1850 opera depends.

The entry of the celebrated Swan should be a visual highlight but instead was a spectacular non-event. Limited though my experience of knights arriving by swan-boat is, I am convinced that coming up through the floor is not the best way.

None of this much mattered since musically this was a high-calibre performance.

Mark Elder, by any reckoning a world-class Wagnerian, conducted a clear-sighted, intense performance which had time to breathe and never dragged (how often can we say that of Lohengrin?). The Royal Opera orchestra, together with off- and on-stage trumpets and organ, excelled.

The outstanding performance of the evening was that of Waltraud Meier as the vicious dominatrix Ortrud, single-handedly to blame for the entire muddle of sex, swords, sorcery (and swans) on which the fantastical plot turns. The role ideally suits Meier. Her stage presence is fiery, her voice as forceful and thrilling as it is subtle. In the first act she does little except look superb and roll her eyes, yet she holds the stage. By Act II, her big moment, we are gripped.

As Elsa of Brabant, Wagner’s saintly, dippy heroine, Melanie Diener had ardour and radiance,` and certainly looked appalled when she realised, too late, she should never have got mixed up with a magical knight who won’t tell her his name (I’m Mrs Who? she wonders in two of her arias).

The American tenor Robert Dean Smith cut a somewhat anxious, humpty-dumpty figure as Lohengrin. Vocally, his middle range sounded strained but he negotiated the relentless high notes skilfully and saved just enough vim for his final oration.

Rene Pape’s resonant Heinrich I looked especially impressive in a carapace of gold. Sergei Leiferkus’s Telramund was coldly effective if reedy sounding.

The hard-working Royal Opera chorus made the most of the Bridal Chorus which follows the so-called Wedding March. It’s a wonder anyone ever chooses to walk down the aisle to a piece written for so disastrous and bloody a marriage.

Cathrine Ashmore | Wednesday 4 June 2003

Opera

Spectacularly `released from her contract’ when she failed to appear as Sieglinde on Day One of rehearsals for the Richard Jones production of Die Walkiire at Covent Garden almost a decade ago, Waltraud Meier allegedly vowed she would never return. Or was it Nicholas Payne—then opera director—who closed the ROH’s doors to her? No matter, on June 3 she came back wreathed in smiles—and not a little self-satisfaction—at the tremendous acclaim she aroused at curtaindown. She had clearly been much missed by London’s Wagnerians and her first Ortrud here was little short of a sensation. Although some great mezzo-sopranos have successfully essayed the dramatic soprano role of the pagan-witch-turned-Countess-of-Telramund—Eva Randova when Elijah Moshinsky’s production was new in 1977 and for several revivals—it properly belongs to a singer of the Astrid Varnay type who was a Brunnhilde and an Elektra. Meier sings Is°lde, of course, even though she has always called herself a mezzo-soprano and she is the most celebrated (and frequently recorded) Kundry de nos fours, but some of Ortrud’s music is undoubtedly a bit of a stretch for her: her thrilling invocation of the Norse Gods Wodan and Freia after her first confrontation with Melanie Diener’s Elsa in Act 2 was an edge-of-the-seat moment, doubly exciting because of the sense Meier gives of singing at the limits of her vocal resources. Her voice may not be Christa-Ludwig-beautiful in this part, but it’s hard to think of any contemporary Ortrud who brings such insidious allure to the music, or such subtle nuancing of the text. Her `Ah, wie begreifst du schnell und wohl’ dripped with sarcastic contempt for her dull-witted husband, and her cries of `Elsa’ sounded truly `schauerlich und ldagend’ but weirdly seductive. In Act 1, when Ortrud has almost nothing to sing until the final ensemble, it was impossible to take one’s eyes off Meier, so riveting were her body language and facial expressions, radiating such supreme confidence in the power of her black magic that she is only mildly discombobulated by the miraculous arrival of Elsa’s Swan-Knight defender. One might accuse a lesser artist of upstaging her colleagues, but for most of the evening she was the only true singeractor on stage. As this was the umpteenth revival of a 26-year-old production (and looking every minute of it, I’m afraid), I am not complaining. This now tired and oldfashioned Lohengrin desperately needed a star of Meier’s magnitude to lift it out of the routine. She is one of the few genuine opera divas left. And the audience knew it. To be fair, Wagner’s score was wonderfully conducted by Mark Elder—all that ground-work he did last year at Glyndebourne with Lohengrin’s prototype, Weber’s Eloyanthe, had clearly paid off spectacularly when he came to tackle the infinitely greater masterpiece. From the diaphanous, ravishingly played account of the Act 1 prelude it was clear that a master-Wagnerian was in the pit and the momentum never sagged, a signal achievement in this transitional work. Elder’s pacing, his feeling for the luminous texture of the music associated with the SwanKnight—with its pre-echoes of Parsifal—and the contrasting darkness of the Ortrud-Telramund scene, and the sheer orchestral glamour he brought to the swaggering Act 3 prelude were simply world-class, and it was generous of Antonio Pappano (who has conducted Lohen grin at Bayreuth) to cede such an important assignment to Elder at Covent Garden. Apart from the mezzo and conductor, this was a fairly ordinary Wagner night: the chorus, boosted by 50 extras, did not sound like a properly blended Wagnerian throng. There were lots of rough, ragged edges, but that’s hardly surprising in an international house that ‘makes do’ with a regular strength of 40 (less than half of the Paris Opera’s choral staff). Melanie Diener’s Elsa, Bayreuth-baptized, was well enough but hardly outstandingly sung—her persistently sagging pitch is unfortunately not offset by any special radiance in her timbre, though she looked lovely in John Napier’s medieval costumes. Her Knight-in-Golden-Armour, Robert Dean Smith, was a reliable, stolid fellow, saddled with a wig that lent him an unfortunate resemblance to Jane Eaglen after an enforced six-month sojourn at a health farm. Rene Pape sang beautifully as Henry the Fowler, but his non-acting suggested he had been too busy with King Marke at Glyndebourne to attend many rehearsals (supervised by Moshinsky himself). Roman Trekel might have seemed a dubious import as a rough-voiced Herald had he not also been singing Papageno in the second run of David McVicar’s new Zaubedlate—a package deal, clearly. But Sergey Leiferkus’s Telramund remained good value—true, his mangled German jars, his distinctly Russian timbre is unidiomatic and his Kirov-School-ofVillainous-Acting probably wouldn’t do for a Peter Konwitschny production, but he still delivers vocally and, as with Meier, you know when he’s on stage. He’s still got bags of personality and he’s a trooper—there are as few of those as real divas today.

HUGH CANNING| Royal Opera at Covent Garden, June 3

Rating
(6/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
HO 3560
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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 493 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
A production by Elijah Moshinsky