Lohengrin

Lothar Koenigs
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Date/Location
26 May 2013
Wales Millennium Centre Cardiff
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
Heinrich der VoglerMatthew Best
LohengrinPeter Wedd
Elsa von BrabantEmma Bell
Friedrich von TelramudClaudio Otelli
OrtrudSusan Bickley
Der Heerrufer des KönigsSimon Thorpe
Vier brabantische EdleAlastair Moore
Philip Lloyd Holtam
Laurence Cole
Simon Crosby Buttle
Gallery
ClassicalSource.com

The magic element of Lohengrin requires quite a suspension of disbelief, which is more easily folded into a nebulous, dark-ages staging. For this new production for Welsh National Opera of Wagner’s extreme, romantische opera, Antony McDonald has been fairly precise about period – the second-half of the nineteenth-century, contemporary with the composer – and has accordingly adjusted its emotional and psychological world. Brabant is an inward-looking community, imprisoned by piety – there is much defiant waving of little black prayer-books by the chorus – and by the scruffy, comfortless military barracks where most of the action takes place. There is much to fear, represented by the drop-front gauze of a beautiful (and during the Prelude to Act One, beautifully lit) but neutral landscape, the terrifying but transforming ‘beyond’ from which Lohengrin is to emerge.

McDonald’s direction and, more particularly, his designs suggest rather than assert. Vaguely Bavarian costumes remind us of King Ludwig II’s obsession with the opera; dreams and desires are still neurasthenic rather than a matter for analysis; Elsa is an icon of Victorian passion and repression, even, in her denouement with Lohengrin, falling into an attitude like a melodramatic painting of the period; the barefoot, hippy-like Lohengrin from the south promises a liberation and spirituality that would later seduce and annihilate Aschenbach in Death in Venice; when King Henry sings of a German sword for a German land, McDonald’s direction makes this anticipation of Teutonic sensibility and historical baggage plausible, as he does the Aryan vision of Germany’s future realised in the threatening figure of the resurrected Gottfried – and the swan, reminiscent of the one in the early-1990s’ Lohengrin at ENO, is enticingly sexually ambiguous; Lohengrin’s reluctance to give his name is because definition is limiting, and, once the issue has been forced, he has no option but to withdraw with a Zen-like shrug that his time has not yet come.

Thomas Rowlands as Gottfried & Peter Wedd as Lohengrin (Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera, May 2013). Photograph: David Massey McDonald has met Lohengrin’s specific Germanic qualities head-on, but has done so with an impressively light touch and informed imagination, so that the need for a shining knight and lieber Schwan is perfectly believable. He even managed to raise a laugh in Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding-night scene.

Emma Bell as Elsa & Peter Wedd as Lohengrin (Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera, May 2013). Photograph: David Massey Musically, it’s just as strong, sometimes overwhelmingly so – Lohengrin-lovers, whatever they make of the production, will not be disappointed. Emma Bell and Peter Wedd were enthralling as Elsa and Lohengrin. Occasionally I missed that Elsa-specific passive weightlessness in Bell’s rich soprano, but succumbed completely to her lyrical, supremely lyrical singing. Her acting, too, was notably astute – her compulsion to dig the truth out of Lohengrin and her self-loathing at having done so were brilliantly done. Wedd’s powerful Lohengrin matched nobility with inwardness, and his singing combined lieder-like immediacy with a consistent heroic tone. He looked the part, too, and projected Lohengrin’s need for unconditional love with, given the vast size of the theatre, great intimacy. His perfectly placed ‘Heil dir’ when he eventually gets Elsa to the altar really hit the spot.

Susan Bickley menaced superbly as Ortrud in Act One, then erupted spectacularly the second, her gleaming soprano brooking no opposition. If she was a formidable Lady Macbeth figure with Friedrich, she was an unforgettable feeder of doubt in Elsa’s bosom. She never disappoints. As Friedrich, Claudio Otelli (a late replacement for the indisposed John Lundgren) gave a rather generic, grandstanding performance, but his dark-side singing complemented Bickley’s furious, bleak toxicity. Matthew Best, it was announced, was suffering from a throat infection; his bass was admittedly less cavernous and broad than usual, but he made the political point of an enfeebled monarch convincingly.

The WNO Chorus and Orchestra were on top form, the former producing a huge sound for Elsa’s progress to her wedding, and the Act Three interlude, with bands of trumpets placed round the theatre, was breathtaking. Under Lothar Koenigs’s fluid, intuitive conducting, Wagner’s lovely score worked its peculiar, potent magic.

Peter Reed | Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Spectator

In Act II of Lohengrin, after the villainess Ortrud has interrupted the procession to the Minster, and sown the seeds of doubt in Elsa’s mind about the provenance of her rescuer, Lohengrin himself appears and comforts Elsa, saying, ‘Come! Let your tears of sorrow become ones of joy.’ That is followed by a solemn quiet passage, only 11 bars long, and unrelated to anything we have heard before or will hear subsequently, but of such grave beauty that it makes you, too, cry.

This kind of pathos and nobility permeate Lohengrin, and though each of Wagner’s dramas has its own feel and colour, those of this opera are so wonderful that it’s impossible not to wish that Wagner had continued in the same vein for one more. That’s how I felt as Welsh National Opera’s new production of the opera drew to a close, for it is a magnificent achievement, even by this company’s exalted Wagnerian standards. Lothar Koenigs, the conductor, clearly loves every bar, and elicits from the orchestra, some of it excitingly located in various boxes in the theatre, and from the staggeringly fine chorus, performances one would be delighted to hear anywhere. Yet Koenigs is never inclined to dawdle, or highlight a phrase. I think this was, and certainly seemed, the swiftest Lohengrin I have ever heard, even the Prelude being taken at a less broad pace than usual. The tempi were a help to the singers, whose voices are on the small side for Wagner, but seemed suitable on this scale.

Emma Bell’s Elsa is the most radiant thing I have heard this lovely singer do, and her entry in her wedding dress for the procession in Act II was exquisitely moving, merely as acting. Peter Wedd is, in appearance, a surprisingly mature Lohengrin, but his authority, vocal and as a presence, made his portrayal as convincing as any I have seen. Susan Bickley hasn’t the big vocal guns that can make Ortrud’s outbursts so thrilling, but she projects with alarming conviction.

One of the most striking things about this production is that the Swan is not only not the usual embarrassment, but is extraordinarily beautiful and effective, as Gottfried brings the work, Wagner’s only unequivocal tragedy, to a uniquely convincing end. It’s a pity that the settings are so depressing, meaninglessly so, suggestive of an early 20th-century public lavatory; and the uniforms of the chorus, evocative of a similar period, add to the drabness of a work that should be in all ways radiant: that heightens the tragedy.

The evening before, I saw Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, ‘dedicated by the composer to the benefit of all beings’. All beings? I can think of many that that dedication would seem inappropriate for. This is a play-cum-opera, the play about Wagner’s last day. Jean-Claude Carrière’s text is cripplingly banal, and not well acted, so the context for Wagner’s imagining, as he dies, his unwritten opera The Victors is unpromising. Die Sieger is performed in Wales for the first time in Pali and Sanskrit, but with surtitles, no doubt to the pain of David Pountney, their enemy to the death. I couldn’t get much of a hold on this work, powerfully sung by fine artists such as Claire Booth, with instrumental and electronic accompaniment. It would have been, of course, preposterous for Harvey to try to compose a work in a post-Parsifal style; but since it’s meant to be by Wagner, the idea wouldn’t leave me, and the project does seem misconceived.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama reached a new level of sophisticated achievement with a production of Britten’s penultimate opera, written for TV, Owen Wingrave. Unfortunately two things militated against its success: one was that the audience was seated either side of the stage, which occupied the middle ground, with the orchestra at one end; the other is that the work itself is so patently a fabricated and uninspired piece. As to the unwise positioning: it meant that the singers, all of them of remarkable quality (I saw the opening night, so the first team), had to rotate slowly, so that at any time some of the audience could hear what they were singing and some couldn’t — surely this was predictable, and had anyway undermined Rorem’s Our Town, accorded similar treatment last year.

This story of a brave and mocked pacifist going to his death in a haunted room is preposterous, and Britten should have had the taste to see that it is one of Henry James’s weakest mature stories. The pro-war Wingraves are a collection of crude caricatures; while Owen is noble, eloquent, young, handsome, courageous, and he sings such things as ‘In peace I have found my image [?], I have found myself…peace is not silent it is the voice of love’, so not surprisingly the music his creator awards him is emetic. I was placed near the orchestra, so could observe how the accompaniment is a brilliant series of tricks and tics, uninventive but attractive, with quite a lot of War Requiem leftovers. Benjamin Appl was superb as Owen, though, and I look forward keenly to seeing him in a decent role.

Michael Tanner | 15 June 2013

bachtrack.com

Welsh National Opera’s contribution to the Wagner bicentenary is in the form of a summer season entitled Wagner Dream, consisting of Jonathan Harvey’s opera of the same name, a run of Madam Butterfly, and Antony McDonald’s new production of Lohengrin. Lothar Koenigs conducted an excellent performance of Wagner’s romantic opera at a packed Wales Millennium Centre.

McDonald transplants the action from a mediaeval setting to a stark, subtly industrial location in the composer’s own era. This works remarkably well and gives interesting context to the political aspects of the opera. Swords are largely replaced with guns (except for Lohengrin’s fights with Telramund) and there is a very clear class distinction between soldiers and nobles. Otherwise, things are fairly literal. Lohengrin appears and departs on a rather humble rowing boat, elegantly led by a feather-clad boy, and Lucy Carter’s excellent lighting provided good effects throughout.

The production as a whole was very good. The first two acts were highly engaging, with a thrilling finale to Act I. The intensity seemed to slip ever so slightly in the third act, though. The bedroom scene, in which Elsa asks the fatal question about her husband’s origins, seemed to dawdle, and the later parts of the act did not reach the same levels of emotional engagement as the first two acts had. The final pages of the opera were a little confusing: the restored Gottfried sends Ortrud to the ground with a Wotan-like hand gesture, takes up Lohengrin’s sword and proceeds to wave it imperiously at the whole cast, lingering quite menacingly on King Heinrich. It took little from an excellent performance, though.

The singing was superb without exception, but the WNO chorus and Susan Bickley’s Ortrud stood out. There were some almighty climaxes from the reinforced chorus, memorably in the Act II procession to the minster and Act III entry of the king.

Bickley gave an inspired performance as an uncomplicatedly evil Ortrud with incredible power throughout her range. She showed impressive stamina to match, seeming to become progressively more deranged in the latter parts of the opera. Her dramatic interaction with Telramund in Act II, plotting revenge on Elsa and Lohengrin, was outstanding. Ortrud was portrayed as so manipulative as to make Claudio Otelli’s Telramund seem a victim of his wife’s scheming. His crazed staggering around the stage very much shifted the malevolence to Ortrud. Otelli himself, replacing an indisposed John Lundgren, sang the humiliated Telramund very well, capturing his injured pride very convincingly.

Peter Wedd as the title character showed an impressive palate of vocal colours. He was most impressive in the softer moments from his very first words, tenderly thanking his swan. The more heroic passages were by no means disappointing, but the emphasis on Lohengrin’s gentler aspects was fascinating. His dismay at Elsa’s succumbing to Ortrud’s plot and asking his name was beautifully moving. He walked barefoot, perhaps highlighting his otherworldliness. Elsa, ably sung by Emma Bell, was a multifaceted character, mysterious and dreamy in her early dreams of her hero and tormented later. Bell’s rounded tone never threatened to become shrill.

Before the performance we were told that Matthew Best (King Heinrich) was suffering from a throat infection, and may need to be replaced by an understudy at some point in the opera. He sang the whole thing with imperious power, and I would not have suspected anything to be wrong with his throat had we not been told.

The WNO orchestra were on fine form. The strings were glassy and clear, not quite shimmering in the Act I prelude, but otherwise superb. The brass section was admirably noble when required, notably in the Act III prelude and the entry of King Heinrich. The latter of these featured thrilling use of offstage brass. Clusters of trumpets were stationed around the auditorium at various levels and the stereo sound provided by their fanfares was wonderful. The ensemble was impressive too, for such widely-spread forces. Lothar Koenigs’ conducting was measured and practical, constantly helpful to the singers and reserving grander gestures for a select few passages. There may have been scope for adjusting the pacing in places (Elsa and Lohengrin seemed to fall in love rather too quickly in Act I) but his mastery of a large orchestra, chorus and cast made for a hugely enjoyable performance. The slight slackening of emotional intensity in the third act did little to dampen audience spirits, and a very warm reception greeted the last notes. This is a production well worth seeing.

Rohan Shotton | 28 Mai 2013

Rating
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Media Type/Label
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Broadcast (BBC 3)
A production by Antony McDonald