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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1850)
Elsa: Solveig Kringelborn (soprano); Ortrud: Waltraud Meier (mezzo); Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor); Heinrich der Vogler: Hans-Peter König (baritone); Telramund: Tom Fox (baritone); Herald: Roman Trekel (baritone)
EuropaChorAkademie Mainz
Chorus of the National Opera of Lyon
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Stephan Braunfels (set design)
rec. Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, June 2006
DVD all regions
Bonus feature: Never Shalt Thou Ask of Me: A documentary film by Reiner E. Moritz, including interviews with Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Stephan Braunfels, Bettina Walter, Kent Nagano and leading members of the cast [68:01]
OPUS ARTE OA 0964 D [4 DVDs: 62:89 + 79:45 + 63:49 + 68:01]

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As is so often the case with Wagner, we’re suddenly thrown into proceedings that have been evolving for a long time before the opera opens. Who is this young woman Elsa, whom we see prostate and agonised on an empty stage? How has she come to be in this position? This production cuts straight to the heart of the drama. There’s no need for pseudo-medieval trappings: Elsa’s position is symbolic. She’s the pivot on which the wider forces of Good and Evil rotate. The set is spartan, militaristic in vaguely Cold War terms, which further heightens the tension. The trial keeps us alert because it references things to events in the recent past. Elsa isn’t just a dumb blonde waiting for a knight in shining armour. Nikolaus Lenhoff brings out the stark intensity of the dilemma facing Brabant, or any other society at the crossroads. The simple, elegant set also means that there’s little to distract from the music. I have never understood why people who listen only to recordings “need” naff sets. If it’s really the music they’re after, why clutter the experience with swan costumes and pageantry? It’s not logical. It’s an affectation that doesn’t ring true.

The orchestral playing here is superb, and really deserves the focus it gets in this production. Nagano, with his modernist sensibilities, makes the score shine with clarity and precision. Stretching the tempi might work in more leisurely productions, but not here. This production is powerful because it’s so immediate and alert, and the conducting style is very much a part of the overall concept. Nagano’s sensitivity to the inherent psychological drama in the music makes for very tight shifts of tempo and colour. The orchestra sounds like a powerful beast ready to pounce, held under firm control. Watching Nagano conduct is part of the thrill. He’s animated yet completely at one with his players. The famous Prelude, rising as if from nowhere, from the pit, is beautifully translucent, strings so well blended that the overall effect shimmers. The Vorspiel to Act Three is taken at a prancing pace, the brass packing a punch. Yet, Nagano makes the decorations warm, so it leads naturally into the wedding music. Later, in the Morgenröte, Nagano and his orchestra convey so strongly in sound the images of a sunrise, trumpet alarums, flags unfurling and so on, that the simple, sombre set seems to disappear in the face of the relentless forward thrust of the fanfare.

Perhaps the gentle humour fits with the image of the happy bridegroom so engrossed at the piano that he doesn’t notice his bride approach. He’s not, after all, a red-blooded male but an alien from another realm. It’s a gentle way of exploring the hero’s deeper aspects, without probing too closely into his ultimate inability to connect to a woman. It also makes sense of Elsa’s somewhat histrionic personality, hinted strongly at in the First Act, where she’s an Outsider, too, almost demented with fear. I’ve always had a soft spot for Solveig Kringelborn, having heard her in her first London recital years ago. Hers is not the most perfect of voices, for it has a tendency to sharpen at the lower end. But she can act, infusing what she sings with feeling and character. I’d rather a conflicted Elsa than perfect but remote interpretation. When Lohengrin shouts “Curb your madness!”, you know what he means. Klaus Florian Vogt has a much more classically beautiful voice, as befits a Higher Being. His shiny suit is so badly cut, you realise that it’s deliberate – this fellow is a swan, he isn’t used to wearing a suit, or relating to the messy emotional world of humans. Fortunately, the sheer beauty of Vogt’s ringing, pure tones shines out, dispelling the stiff, formal body language that’s part of the characterisation in this production. The orchestra comes gleaming to the rescue, reinforcing the sense of light and radiance.

Waltraud Meier has portrayed Ortrud so many times she’s made it her territory. She is, of course, excellent. It’s one of those roles where getting older enhances the characterisation, and her voice still easily packs the heft it has always had. In the First and Second Act, she effortlessly steals the thunder from Kringelborn , even though this isn’t her darkest and most inspired portrayal. Curiously, in the end, she appears in a dress that looks more feathery than Lohengrin’s. When she calls out to the forgotten Gods, you wonder if they were animist and primeval, or indeed, if they really are defeated. It’s an intriguing touch, especially when the new Duke is revealed and looks just like a younger version of Vogt, complete with padded suit to mimic Vogt’s solid build. This is no wan stripling. In fact, he’s decidedly swan-like in the sense that swans are stronger than they look. It’s a strikingly Freudian detail, and very thought-provoking.

Tom Fox and Hans-Peter König characterise their roles fully, Fox in particular singing with impressive depth. Telramund is a pivotal figure too, in that he conveys force without intellect, old loyalties that are waylaid by short-term gains. He was the mainstay in the First Act. I do try to warm to Roman Trekel, but he really doesn’t do anything for the Herald, a role that could be a lot less “minor” than it is here.

The documentary “Never shall thou ask of me” is much better than the average bonus film. It’s actually worth watching because it tells a lot about how a production is developed. Lehnhoff doesn’t go for fashion or gags, everything has to fit together logically. Contrary to populist opinion, good directors know the music intimately. Lenhoff describes the Prelude as the “first monochromatic music ever written … the best Philip Glass, you know”. And then there’s a shot of Nagano and the orchestra doing just that. Listening to the singers, in particular to the articulate Tom Fox, is revealing.

Anne Ozorio




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