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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Wagner, Lohengrin: (Concert Performance) Soloists, City of Birminham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (Conductor) Symphony Hall ,Birmingham12.6. 010 (GR)
Lohengrin Lance Ryan
Elsa Hillevi Martinpelto
Ortrud Lioba Braun
Telramund Eike Wilm Schulte
King Henry Gidon Saks
Herald Kostas Smoriginas
CBSO Chorus Director: Simon Halsey
CBSO Youth Chorus Conductor: Julian Wilkins
Men of the London Symphony Chorus
One of this year's new productions at Bayreuth is Lohengrin. It is to be conducted in his debut there by Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the CBSO, and Birmingham's Wagner fans (and I suspect many more from further afield) were given a preview of what the Festival might experience in this concert. Rehearsal or advertisement for Nelsons, it was an exhilarating experience and once more proved how comfortable he is with Wagner and the demands put upon an opera conductor. I wish I had a ticket for Bayreuth!
The CBSO upper strings generated a nervous tension setting the scene in the Prelude to Act I. The heavenly presence of the 'Grail' motto was announced in ethereal tones, apposite for this romantic opera of spiritual love and earthly passion. Nelsons handled the dynamic build-up to the climax and its subsequent collapse with precision.
After a tumultuous proclamation from the Herald (Kostas Smoriginas) trumpets and the reinforced choirs, King Henry delivered his address to the nation. Meant to inspire and get the people behind him, the bass-baritone of Gidon Saks in Gott grüss euch, liebe Männer von Brabant was commanding and persuasive. Saks also showed tact and diplomacy in his delivery when the problem of Brabantine leadership was raised. Of the individual contributions to Act I Saks' was not bettered. The experienced Eike Wilm Schulte was Friedrich von Telramund, deliberate and sure whilst relating his version of events as guardian of Elsa, but as his tale unfolded the animation from the strings was not reflected in his rather monotone recitative. Neither was Hillevi Martinpelto totally convincing as Elsa. Her responses to the charges were one of bewilderment rather than trance-like; Einsam in trüben Tagen, one of the most lyrical numbers of the whole opera was appealing without being memorable.
Some perfectly timed pauses gripped the auditorium as Lohengrin was summoned. The benefit of a large male chorus made In düstrem Schweigen richtet Gott! all the more poignant as their voices rang out across the Birmingham Symphony Hall. As the 'Swan' figuratively drew into view, the chorus volume swelled triumphantly to great effect. Lance Ryan certainly looked the part of Lohengrin, saintly knight and handsome hero, fully equipped to rescue any damsel in distress. Great things have been predicted for the young Canadian heldentenor; I thought he began the duet rather tentatively, as if he and Martinpelto were feeling each other out, more so than the libretto might indicate. They both let things rip in the quintet, along with Saks, Schulte and Lioba Braun (Otrud) all five being distinctly heard above orchestra and choir for an electrifying conclusion to the first act.
It was the turn of cellos to dictate the pace of second act prelude, their sinister strains presaging the character of Otrud. The following scene was one highlight of the performance: Braun was magnificent and proved it was possible display acting ability alongside vocal prowess in a concert rendition. A secure top and an expressive bottom, nobody would be safe from the wiles of Braun as this protagonist; not exactly Gesamtkunstwerk but Wagner's drama blossomed in her duet with Friedrich. Elsa's prayer Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen, retained the high standard of Act II, delicately rendered by Martinpelto. Getting into her stride, her contribution in the extended duet with Braun was also favourable, buoyed by some incisive orchestral accompaniment. Braun's beseeches with outstretched arms to her dishonoured Gods, Wodan the strong and Freia the gracious, were riveting. The following section illustrated several advantages of a concert performance in a hall as receptive as this Birmingham one: the focussing on the 'Forbidden Question' statement from the orchestra; the blazing trumpet fanfare from above the choir stalls, reinforced by the might of the orchestra to herald the 'first gleam of dawn'; the news from the pages that Elsa was approaching – conveyed by the CBSO Youth Chorus under Julian Wilkins, both sonorous and disciplined in their distinctive blue uniforms; the all too short tantalizing burst from the CBSO woodwind section; the elated reaction of the full choir to the news of the strident Smoriginas that there was to be a wedding. Lohengrin relies a great deal for its success on the choral contributions and both CBSO choruses, the Men of the London Symphony Chorus and London Voices were united and superb. The King and Lohengrin re-entered to steady the masses, but I did not care much for Ryan's vibrato here. Schulte did his best to stir up trouble again in Den dort im Glanz ich vor mir sehe, and although he failed to cause me any concern, his stamina throughout was impressive. However when Lohengrin popped the question, Ryan did not even look at his intended never mind sound romantic, in this romantic of all operas. But the organ added to the occasion and with Nelsons now sporting an infectious smile there was another exiting conclusion to the act.
Having remained off stage, allowing others to take the Act II applause, Nelsons was greeted for Act III with a spontaneous cheer from his adoring Midland public; he set about the bridal prelude with refreshing enthusiasm. It was abundantly joyful and worthy of gracing any wedding as the trombones and tuba led the CBSO brass in the lyrical celebrations. The choir's 'Here comes the Bride' beckoned the nuptial pair from opposite wings of the platform. Both Martinpelto and Ryan had saved themselves for their climactic duet, both singers conveying their blissful union with ringing clarity and lyricism above the refined orchestral accompaniment. The mounting tension as Elsa began to have doubts was palpable from her variation in colour – Martinpelto's best contribution. Inevitably the 'Forbidden Question' returned fusing the dramatic moment. It was left to the orchestra to provide the picture for the killing of Friedrich – the victim was off-stage. Having asked the question, the atmosphere was tangibly raised before Lohengrin revealed his name. After the hushed response, Nelsons judged the pace of the 'Farewell' to perfection and Ryan responded magically – pure, tender and from another world. With the final chapter revealed – the miraculous return of Elsa's brother – the orchestra brought us full circle with the mystical strains of the 'Grail'.
A full house gave all the performers an enthusiastic hand. Not particularly renowned for its extrovert demonstrations, a few sections of the Birmingham audience began to rise as the individual singers took their bow. The biggest cheer however was deservedly reserved for the 'local' boy, conductor Nelsons – everyone was out of their seats. What a breath-taking two years it has been!