Lohengrin

Sebastian Weigle
Cor i Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
Date/Location
24 July 2006
Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
Heinrich der VoglerReinhard Hagen
LohengrinJohn Treleaven
Elsa von BrabantEmily Magee
Friedrich von TelramudHans-Joachim Ketelsen
OrtrudLuana DeVol
Der Heerrufer des KönigsRobert Bork
Vier brabantische EdleVicenç Esteve Madrid
José Luis Casanova
Francisco Santiago
Stefan Kocán
Gallery
Mostly Opera

On several occasions I have successfully recommended this DVD to acquaintances, otherwise not appreciative of Richard Wagner´s work. They typically respond with “so much went on at stage, that we did not have time to get bored”. Which is the exact reason for my general disapproval of this production: So much goes on on the stage, that I lose all perspective of the music. How can you concentrate on the music when Ortrud throws pieces chalk in Telramunds face in the back of a classroom? I have tried. Several times, in fact, having seens this production in the theater in both Hamburg and at the Royal Danish Opera, as well as on this DVD from the Teatro Liceu, Barcelona recorded in 2006.

According to Peter Konwitschny the concept of this production is the result of a thorough analysis of both libretto and music. In his opinion, the characters interact much like children, making it a logic step to stage this Lohengrin in a classroom.

Opens Act 1: We are in a class-room. King Heinrich is the teacher, Elsa is the model-pupil, Ortrud and Telramund throw chalk around in classroom. They tease Elsa, who hides in a closet. Lohengrin then arrives and they fight with wooden swords. But Lohengrin, in essence, is a grown man, and when he kills Telramund in the third act with a real sword, the children’s world fall apart and they are suddenly forced to grow up – their confusion and insecurities laid bare on the open stage.

It is a well thought out concept indeed. And Konwitschny convincingly communicates his message to the audience, and I even got it the first time, which is far from always the case. Indeed, I am not averse to such experiments with Wagner. Nevertheless, I must admit to not liking this production, the main reason being that all the action on stage completely move the focus from the music to the theater. This staging tells a story in itself. I am not sure it is Lohengrin´s, but that is less important. What is more important is, that Wagner´s music does not seem to fit in here, or even be an important element in telling this story. Which probably explains this productions success with audiences otherwise not drawn to Richard Wagner´s works. But I´ll have to admit to knowing several people with great love for Richard Wagner´s works who also love this production.

The work receives a fine musical performance and the singers fit well into the production concept led by Emily Magee´s nice (and slightly irritating) Elsa, Luana DeVol´s naughty Ortrud and John Treleaven´s somewhat out-of-place (intended) Lohengrin. Sebastian Weigle conducts a fine performance, though the orchestra expectedly does not match Abbado´s Vienna Philharmonics on a competing DVD.

Unfortunately, Lohengrin is not particularly well represented on DVD. I personally prefer the Lehnhoff/Nagano Baden-Baden staging. But I may not be representative of most potential Lohengrin DVD buyers, since my interest in Lohengrin primarily lies with the Ortrud-Telramund scenes, where Waltraud Meier/Tom Fox are unbeatable in the Lehnhoff production.

For the more traditionally inclined, the Vienna production conducted by Claudio Abbado with Plácido Domingo and Cheryl Studer as Lohengrin and Elsa is musically superb, although the medieval staging is dark and sinister.

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

John Treleaven: 2
Hans Joachim Ketelsen: 3-4
Luana DeVol: 4
Emily Magee: 4
Konwitschny´s staging: 2-3

Sebastian Weigle: 4

Overall impression: 3

MusicWeb-International.com

After a slow but intensive prelude the half transparent curtain – looking almost like a TV screen – slowly rises. We are in a classroom from anno dazumal, as they probably would have said in Hamburg a decade ago when this production had its premiere. The ‘school children’, in school uniforms and short trousers, are clearly pupils who haven’t been moved up. They are now middle aged – some even older, but they’re still rascals, running about, disturbing the peace, throwing paper swallows and fighting with wooden swords. A group of brass players is seated next to the open window and stand up now and then to play fanfares. The ‘King’s Herald’ is something between form master and class monitor. Everybody knows at once when the King pays a visit that he is the King. He is in short trousers, too, and with a Royal Crown in gilt paper on his head. In a big cupboard a shy and nervous girl is hiding; she answers to the name of Elsa. No, this is neither a students’ farce nor an amateur variety show but a production of Richard Wagner’s romantic opera Lohengrin. Strange, I thought it dealt with a supposed brother-murder case somewhere in the Middle Ages and with the arrival of the pure knight of the Grail brotherhood to defend and save the accused Elsa. Do we have yet another whim of a director who wants to clear away old conventions, to show that he doesn’t give a damn for tradition and that dignity and solemnity aren’t worth a fig? Well, the director is Peter Konwitschny, regarded as one of the foremost in his trade and a ‘deep’ innovator, and Claus Spahn goes to some length in the liner notes to stand up for his cause. My reaction is: I have read it – but I don’t buy it. I may be conservative, conventional, intellectually dwarfed, narrow-minded – but I don’t buy it! I have seen – in the theatre as well as on video and DVD – lots of productions that have been radical, unconventional, intellectually deep-probing and broad-minded. Some I have liked, some I have loved, some I have loathed and some have left me completely indifferent – which possibly is, for the director, the most embarrassing state of affairs. My reactions this time? ‘No, not again!’ ‘What’s he after?’ ‘This is ridiculous!’ ‘Is it a parody?’ ‘He must hate Wagner!’. My wife uttered just the right words: ‘Where is the music? He drags Wagner’s music through the mud!’

There are, to be honest, places where it works – provided one can disregard the sets and the costumes – and that is in the more private scenes. This means most of act 2, the Telramund–Ortrud scene and the following meeting between Ortrud and Elsa. Here the emotions and the manipulations are exposed in a way seldom encountered in more conventional productions. The Elsa–Lohengrin scenes also work, but here there are other inhibiting factors, which I will come back to.

I have already touched on Weigle’s conducting of the overture. Generally this is a rather taut reading and the orchestra play well. I have heard better opera choruses in this music, though. I presume that it was sometimes a hard nut for the singers to sing properly while at the same time being asked to perform quite complicated actions. This is also something that to some degree afflicts the main characters.

Starting from the top of the social ladder, and from the bottom voice-wise, King Henry the Fowler is portrayed as warm and rather naïve. Reinhard Hagen’s singing is just as warm and steady. His herald is noisy and rather strained. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen is a fairly conventional menacing Telramund. Apart from the fact that he runs about in schoolboy clothes and lacks any scrap of the dignity we could have expected of this Brabantian count. He is strong-voiced but too strained. This also goes for his scheming wife, Ortrud. Luana DeVol is a splendid actor, as I have noticed in other productions, and she has an especially expressive face. Even vocally she is impressive for her way of colouring the voice. One does not expect so evil a woman to sing like an angel. After a somewhat hesitant start Emily Magee finds the silvery tone and the steadiness one expects from a good Elsa. Her singing is the best reason to hear this performance. Unfortunately her Lohengrin has little to recommend him. John Treleaven sounds worn, wobbly and wooden and his acting is little better. Perhaps he heartily disliked the whole production, which doesn’t let him arrive in shining white armour. Instead he has to walk about in a white coat, looking like a lost district medical officer.

In my view this last point illustrates perfectly what’s wrong with this production. The surgeon has – in his view – made a successful operation. Sadly though, he has managed to kill the patient – and Wagner is mourning in his Heaven. For his and your own comfort, get Götz Friedrich’s Bayreuth production instead, with Peter Hofmann and Karan Armstrong.

Göran Forsling

Opera Today

Drastic re-settings of operas must have an internal logic or they’re merely controversial, experimental, irritating, or all three. Peter Konwitschny’s inventive Lohengrin, seen on this DVD, is taken from performances of the work at Barcelona’s Teatre del Liceu in July, 2006 (it had previously been presented in Hamburg and Copenhagen), and is indeed drastic. It works up to a point.

Brabant as seen here is a very small world; it is in fact a classroom. The Brabantians are adolescent, unruly schoolchildren in uniforms–short pants, modest tunics, etc.–and the Herald seems to be the class monitor. The King is from another classroom and he wears a cardboard crown. The children are wayward and playful, and Elsa, a shy girl, is picked on by the homely, pig-tailed Ortrud and her bullying pal, Telramund. Elsa, terrified, hides in a closet until the King assures her it’s safe to emerge.

The kids are amazed, childlike, by the appearance of Lohengrin in a trenchcoat and white shirt, the only adult around, who emerges from an opening in the classroom floor in a shaft of light and seems to be famous. There is no swan. The kids are fascinated by the condition he makes for his championing Elsa. At the close of Act 1, when it looks as if Elsa is going to “win”, the others gang up on Ortrud and Telramund. The evil couple look even meaner in Act 2, and Ortrud steps on the train of Elsa’s make-believe wedding gown to trip her up. For Act 3, a large bed has been set up in the classroom and Elsa seems genuinely upset by Lohengrin’s clearly sexual intentions; childhood and innocence are being challenged. And the murder of Telramund steals the last bit of blamelessness from the children. When Lohengrin says his farewell the kids reach to him as if to implore him to stay –for a while his glory bestowed a type of order on their anything-can-happen lives.

We must remain puzzled and irritated by the last-minute appearance of the boy Gottfried, popping out of the opening in the floor wearing a helmet and carrying a machine gun. Does it always have to end that way? Maybe that’s the point: Director Konwitschny is reminding us of not only German history but of Wagner’s seditiousness.

Because we are dealing ostensibly with disorderly, excited children, the movement in this production is far less static than in most productions of Lohengrin, and that’s most welcome. The sets and costumes by Helmut Brade are ideal, with the classroom setting both amusing and realistic rather than the usual forest setting and later, regal bedroom. If some visual magic that we normally find in productions is missing, it’s more than made up for by the surreality of experiencing this odd tale through the eyes of children.

Emily Magee’s Elsa is lovely and girlish; she sings with a clarity and naturalness that are ideal for this interpretation. Luana DeVol, the possessor of a huge, unattractive voice is a splendid Ortrud, malignant and spiteful in the Varnay mold. Her Telramund, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, despite sloppy diction, is impressive. Robert Bork’s Herald is authoritative and Reinhard Hagen’s King Henry, while beautifully sung, lacks the type of authority that Bork brings to the Herald.

John Treleavan’s Lohengrin is a vocal catastrophe. He is a favorite Siegfried and Tristan in Europe and he appears in videos in both roles; I’ve seen them all and have invariably been disappointed. At best, which is to say, at half voice, the tone is sweet; the other 80 percent of the time, moreso here than in the other roles (this performance is more recent), there is a wobble wide enough for pitch to vary a quarter-tone and the sound is ghastly. He acts well enough and is attentive to the text, but he’s a chore to listen to. The chorus is magnificent, singing with enthusiasm–their repeated cries of “Heil” move from childlike wonder and welcoming to a type of mob attitude all too familiar. And because they move more naturally and fluidly in this framework, they seem all the more important. Conductor Sebastien Weigle begins the opera on a properly ethereal note and later allows the drama to grow into something far more real and passionate. Tempos seem ideally balanced and the Liceu Orchestra plays handsomely for him.

Because of Treleaven’s dreadful singing and the controversial production I cannot recommend this as a primary DVD of Lohengrin. James Levine leads an exciting reading on DG from the Met (1986) with Leonie Rysanek as an Ortrud for the ages and Peter Hoffmann only a bit past his prime in the title role; Hoffmann is even better four years earlier from Bayreuth in a fine Götz Friedrich production with Karan Armstrong as Elsa; Claudio Abbado leads a ravishingly Italianate performance with Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer from 1991; and a recent Nicholas Lehnhoff production led by Kent Nagano that I have not seen (Opus Arte) has been well received. But for Lohengrin specialists, this set will be an absorbing alternative. Production values–sound and picture–are first rate and subtitles are provided in English, German, French, Spanish, and Catalan.

Robert Levine

Rating
(4/10)
User Rating
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Technical Specifications
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Remarks
A production by Peter Konwitschny
There is a commercial video from this performance available.