Jia Lü
Chorus and Orchestra of the China National Opera House Beijing
December 2012
National Center for the Performing Arts Beijing
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerSteven Humes
LohengrinStefan Vinke
Elsa von BrabantPetra-Maria Schnitzer
Friedrich von TelramundEgils Siliņš
OrtrudEva Johansson
Der Heerrufer des KönigsWieland Satter
Vier brabantische Edle?
Stage directorGiancarlo del Monaco (2012)
Set designerWilliam Orlandi
TV director?

Some exciting new names in the world of opera come from China, a country with its own tradition in musical theater and a large interest in Western classical music. It is only natural that Beijing’s architecturally impressive National Theatre has deemed important to give grand romantic opera a try – and it has done it quite boldly with Wagner’s Lohengrin.

I don’t know if this opera had been previously staged in the Chinese capital city, but one could see that the initiative had something pioneering about it: the house forces were evidently out of their depth and the production was exotic, to say the least.

Before I give the impression that by writing “exotic”, I mean that Elsa and Lohengrin are shown in full golden Chinese glory, I – most disappointedly – here explain that there was nothing Chinese about this Lohengrin, but for the fact that this theater agreed to stage something between a 1950’s RAI opera movie and a Disney Christmas pantomime. I find it hard to believe that Giancarlo del Monaco actually created a staging in which Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night takes place in the cheap version of an Alma-Tadema garden with millions of plastic flowers, a chintzy projection of luxuriant green mountains and a pond (by the end, tenor and soprano were basically drenched). The little cute/tacky directorial choices were hard to endure, but not harder than the superficial, awkward personenregie. Act II showed a grandiose, fairytale-like cathedral staircase that Elsa and her guests seemed unable to climb. As a result, King Henry and his subjects were obliged to show their pious respects to a pillar, while Ortrud and Telramund would not move an inch from the edge of the stage, conversing with Elsa 15 meters behind them by what one was supposed to understand as Ortrud’s witchcraft tricks. The level of nonsense disguised as a “traditional” approach often made this look like the Monty Python version of the story. There were, of course, some beautiful moments, aided by the theater’s state-of-the-art machinery and one could not help thinking of what could have been done with a similar budget by a seriously committed creative team.

Maestro Lu Jia obviously loves Wagner’s music, but it is difficult to assess his conducting in these circumstances: his orchestra was evidently immature to the task, strings particularly thin-toned. Although wind instruments fared better, balance was often poor and complex passages required slowing down the proceedings. The chorus showed even more difficulty in performing its duty. I wonder if the many cuts were not related to the sheer inability to play and/or sing the complete score, especially in the complex In wildem Brüten concertato in the end of act II, here entirely cut.

In terms of casting, the National Theatre assembled a cast as one could found in any important opera house in Germany. Petra Maria Schnitzer was not in her best voice (she had to struggle to get to the end of Euch Lüften), but has solid technique and good taste. She embraced the “silly goose”-approach chosen by the director with professionalism (one could not possibly be happy having to act as a mentally impaired person for almost four hours). The list of vocal and musical problems in Eva Johansson’s Ortrud is so long that I will spare you a description, but single out what can be considered positive: she has stamina and she is involved. Stefan Vinke is not the most mellifluous among tenors in the role of Lohengrin, but he sang healthily and even produced some ringing heroic notes in the third act. The part of the King is on the high side for Steven Humes’s otherwise well focused bass and Wieland Satter was a dry-toned if efficient Herald. I leave the best for last: Egils Silins’s richly sung Telramund, probably the best I have ever heard live. If he had not been sabotaged by the conductor in some very tricky passages, he would have been almost perfect.

Roberto | Beijing, 09.12.2012


Lohengrin’s grandeur survives despite snags

Richard Wagner’s most lyrically beautiful opera got a grand treatment fit for a king or a knight in shining armor, but quite a few holes were left in the vocal fabric that, with eyes closed, one might mistake for a piece of used cloth.

The new production of Lohengrin, by the National Center for the Performing Arts, is a follow-up to the wildly successful Flying Dutchman. But this time, director Giancarlo Del Monaco and his team came up with a set that showcased the high-tech stagecraft more than the dramatic nuances of the opera or its characters.

Unlike Tosca or Flying Dutchman, which he designed for NCPA, this production of Lohengrin is grand in an old-fashioned way, without the filmic or imaginative touch he displayed in abundance previously.

The open-curtain set changes, of which he is an indisputable master, still elicited wows, but they did nothing to enhance the drama.

In spite of the mammoth scale and inconceivable fluidity of the stage, the pond in the opening scene of Act Three is a touch of genius. It adds a twinkle to the long duet. When the two lead singers dip into the real water and get their robe and gown wet, it is not just the realism, but the symbolism of the determination and failure of commitment, that elevates the scene to a thought-provoking height.

Act Two stands out not only for its imposing staircase, but the physical separation of good and evil, with Elsa and Lohengrin walking up the steps and Ortrud and Friedrich of Telramund downstage, playing a Middle Ages version of truth-or-dare by inquiring about the name and lineage of the mysterious hero.

Vocally, the Lohengrin of Stefan Vinke and Elsa of Petra Maria Schnitzer were totally upstaged by the Telramund of Egils Silins and the Ortrud of Eva Johansson. Vinke has a vocal timbre that is aged and rough, completely failing to conjure up a youthful hero. He exhibited many of the deficiencies associated with a heldentenor, such as barking. Schnitzer has a sweet voice suitable for Elsa, but hers is a small vehicle unable to penetrate a Wagnerian orchestra.

Their Act One entrance was almost a disaster, but both eased into shape as the performance progressed and fared better in the later acts.

Eva Johansson took Beijing by storm when she sang the role of Senta in The Flying Dutchman, in a uniformly strong cast. This time, she used her vocal prowess to portray a sorceress who is mad with jealousy.

Silins as Telramund projected a sense of nobility despite his snarl and grovel. Steven Humes as the king is royal and commanding.

This German cast in principal roles played three of the five nights. The other two shows featured a predominantly Chinese cast, as is usual with NCPA opera productions.

Maestro Lu Jia has proved beyond doubt that he is the best opera conductor in China. But a bigger kudos should be given to Marco Medved, whose directing of the NCPA chorus (including members from a chorus of the armed police force) elicited some of the most exquisite singing heard on this opera stage.

Considering the NCPA chorus was formed only two years ago, it was quite a formidable feat, which raises our expectation for 2013’s Wagner celebration with hopefully more offerings.

One peeve voiced by many Wagner fans here in Beijing was the trimming of length to fit into four hours (with two 15-minute intermissions). Unlike Shanghai Grand Theater’s presentation of The Ring Cycle, NCPA did not move the curtain time ahead but stuck to the usual 7:30 pm and ran it till 11:30 pm, by which time the city’s subway service has ended for the day.

Knowing how difficult it is to hail a cab on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, some patrons bolted for exits during the final act.

Ideally, the show should have been opened earlier and closed by 11 pm – for the convenience of most. We all know Wagner is long, but when everything is right it is anything but boring.

Raymond Zhou | 2012-12-14

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
2704×1524, 34 MiB/s, 47 GiB (MPEG-4)
Chinese subtitles
Telecast (CNTV)
Possible dates: 4, 7, 9 December 2012