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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1850)
Lohengrin - Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor)
Elsa von Brabant - Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)
Heinrich der Vogler - Hans-Peter König (baritone)
Ortrud - Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
Friedrich von Telramund - Tom Fox (baritone)
King’s Herald - Roman Trekel (baritone)
Berlin EuropaChor
Akademie Mainz Chorus of the Opéra National de Lyon
Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester/Kent Nagano
Niklaus Lehnhoff, stage director
Filmed live at the Festpielhaus Baden-Baden in 2006
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]
Region Code: 0 (Worldwide) Sound formats: LPCM Stereo
If in a PAL region, ensure your DVD player and TV are NTSC compatible.
OPUS ARTE DVD OA 0964 D [279:00]


I am not an avid fan of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Wagner productions as a rule, but he always stirs up enough interest that I pay attention to what he’s up to. He is now one of the “grand old men” among opera directors and he is never less than intellectually challenging at this stage of his career. This filmed Lohengrin, from the 2006 Baden-Baden Festival, strikes me as being a triumph, for a conceptualized production, a genre that I have grown to dread in recent years with the advent of things like kitchen chairs hanging from walls, televised Flower Maidens, Grails in bank vaults, gods in raincoats carrying lucite suitcases and the like. Lehnhoff’s Lohengrin does not regale us with any of that nonsense, the closest he gets being the reverse piano on which Lohengrin composes bits from Act 3 as the music rises out of the pit. It works, just, because Klaus Florian Vogt actually appears to be playing the piano and seems to have some facility and certainly familiarity with the instrument, unlike screen actors who try to fake playing musical instruments to disastrously risible effect. The minimalist set comprises a large two-piece moveable bank of stadium seating, conjuring up mental pictures of the Nürnberg Rallies of the 1930s, which has given some reviewers the idea that this production is Lehnhoff’s re-creation of Hitler’s Third Reich. It isn’t. As Lehnhoff states very clearly in the terrific documentary Never Shalt Thou Ask of Me on the third disc, his vision is a more generalized view of militarism that crosses all national boundaries. There isn’t a swastika or right-handed salute in sight in this production and the uniforms worn by the Brabantines could just as easily be equated with the military might of any nation. I strongly recommend that you watch the documentary before the opera. 

The huge two-piece set swings around elegantly and is beautifully lit in such a way as to suggest great bodies of water, in the Act 3 transition between scenes, and the castle walls in Act 2. The opening of Act 1 slowly illuminates the tiers of seating in such a way that the chorus, sitting quite still, suggests a forest of trees until they are called into action to sing. Lehnhoff allows, indeed requires, the viewer to exercise his imagination rather than smack one in the face with the obvious, as is so often the case. Neither is he so obtuse as to flummox one completely by some “pop” esoteric artsiness - note Christoph Schlingensief’s current production of Parsifal at Bayreuth. The lighting is wonderful, varying from dark and mysterious in Act 2, for Ortrud’s and Telramund’s dark sayings, to brilliantly awash in the large set-pieces with the chorus in the bleachers. Lohengrin himself often appears to glow in his own circle of brilliant white light. Which leads me to the central character in this show. 

Klaus Florian Vogt is unquestionably the most unusual-sounding tenor I’ve yet encountered as any Wagner hero. His voice is quite a beautiful lyric tenor and possesses enough weight to carry well. Every time he opened his mouth I was taken aback and often questioned the wisdom of his taking on this or any other Wagner heldentenor role. But by the end of the performance I was completely convinced by his portrayal. I never did quite get used to his sound in a Wagner role but his is the most ethereal, mystical, angelic and convincing Lohengrin I’ve ever seen or heard. He has none of the baritonal undertones of what we normally encounter in this part. He doesn’t bawl or shout or strain for the high notes. His singing seems effortless and he never pushes to be heard. Lehnhoff, ever the stage micro-manager, has found the perfect singer for this production. Vogt’s stiff-kneed walk in Act 1 is indicative of his inhuman-ness and discomfort in a solid body. Vogt also possesses the perfect physique du rôle, being tall, blonde, blue-eyed and quite good-looking, with a sort-of androgynous allure about him that fascinates. All the Brabantines are agog at him, he is their charismatic leader, a creature that we human beings seem perpetually to seek in our lives. He seems too good to be true as well. His cool aloofness towards his beautiful new wife has a sinister element to it that caused me to dislike him in Act 3. I kept muttering to myself “Jumped up little egomaniacal puritan!” as he sat there at his stupid piano, totally self-absorbed, while his wife unties her negligée and attempts to lure him to the nuptial bed. There is no bed in this production by the way. Of course Lohengrin at the piano is probably supposed to be ‘Our Richard’ at work on the score but this doesn’t grate too much as the interaction and acting of the principals is so fascinating that it is easy to ignore the piano and all that it implies. 

Vogt’s idiosyncratic but highly successful Lohengrin aside, the vocal honors, in the more traditional ‘Wagnerian Sense’, go to Hans-Peter König’s splendid König Heinrich and Waltraud Meier’s dark dark dark Ortrud. I’ve always thought Ortrud to be Meier’s greatest Wagner role but was never satisfied with her recorded performances, finding her a tad acid-sounding on top and juddery in the middle register. But in this live filmed event she sounds magnificent. The extra space around her voice allows it to ring out freely on top with a full and refulgent middle voice. Meier is one of the greatest actors among all opera singers, at every moment her face and body register a myriad of responses of a mind-boggling subtlety. A great performance. And Meier’s Ortrud is also something of a clothes horse. Her costumes plus her great physical beauty add colourful, indeed flamboyant, interest to a largely utilitarian setting. Hans-Peter König is a newish bass from Germany. He is the current Hagen and Fafner at Bayreuth and seems destined to take over the mantle of Kurt Moll. His voice is beautiful, powerful and wide-ranging, and he too can act, though not with as much confidence, as yet, as Waltraud Meier. König keeps glancing at the pit during his close-ups but with experience and added confidence I think he will be at the top of the bass pile before too long. 

Solveig Kringelborn has some very beautiful moments but her voice is not intrinsically lovely, so don’t expect an Elisabeth Grümmer. That notwithstanding hers is another fascinating performance. She is deeply musical, intelligent and beautiful and makes Elsa more than just a cipher. Indeed Lehnhoff has made Elsa the pivotal character, keeping her on stage at all times, sitting on a chair near the lip, perhaps dreaming the whole thing; shades of Harry Kupfer’s Senta at Bayreuth in that famous production from the 1970s. This concept works very well and stimulates thought rather than just annoying the viewer with a misguided directorial conceit. Kringelborn’s is only the partial ninny that Elsa usually appears to be. Rather, she is naďve, strange, intelligent and a bit bossy, making her aggressive questioning of Lohengrin in Act 3 a natural aspect of her personality. Tom Fox is a very good Telramund, over-acting a bit - perhaps at Lehnhoff’s instigation - but sings with power and authority. I look forward to his some day, perhaps, taking on Alberich at Baden-Baden with Kent Nagano. 

Nagano possesses the ‘Wagner Gene’ as the saying goes. I wouldn’t have thought it of him years ago but he has shown, with the previous film of Lehnhoff’s Parsifal also from Baden-Baden in 2004 [OA 0915 D] and now this Lohengrin, that he has the measure of these masterpieces and doesn’t falter once. This is a very touchy score with all those high, pianissimo string chordings all over the place and sudden transitions from serenity to bumptious militarism. Nagano makes these gear-changes effortless and his orchestra is superb. The Deutsche Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin is turning into one of the great European orchestras. Their fine performances and recordings of Mahler and Bruckner have prepared them well for their foray into the Wagner pit at Baden-Baden. His chorus is a combination of singers from the Lyon Opéra, his former stomping ground, and the EuropaChor Akademie Mainz. They sing with power, precision and perfect intonation, and not a wobbler in sight - Metropolitan Opera take note! The choristers are encouraged to be individuals. Dressed in modernish clothing, somewhere in the mid-20th century it seems, they manage to create a diverse crowd of citizens without being attention-grabbing or intrusive, though one had to wonder at the guy with the rastafarian locks. 

I hesitated buying this film for a couple of months and then it went on sale at Arkiv and I succumbed. I’m very glad I did and I will watch it again, probably many times. Very highly recommended for those not allergic to updated Wagner.
Jeffrey Sarver

see also Reviews by Anne Ozorio and Colin Clarke


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