DVD OF THE MONTH
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Lohengrin – Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Elsa – Anja Harteros (soprano)
Telramund – Wolfgang Koch (baritone)
Ortrud – Michaela Schuster (mezzo)
King Heinrich – Christof Fischesser (bass)
Herald – Evgeny Nikitin (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper/Kent Nagano
Richard Jones (Stage Director)
rec. live, National Theatre, Munich, July 2009
Region Code: 0, Sound Formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
DECCA 074 3387 [2 DVDs: 207:00]
This fantastic DVD captures one of the most auspicious operatic debuts of 2009, Jonas Kaufmann’s Lohengrin. We have here a record of that rarest of things: a night at the opera when everything worked. The singing is outstanding across the board, the excellent orchestral playing is guided by a conductor of vision and excitement and the production is insightful, stimulating and intelligent.
Let’s begin with the production which is a radical re-envisioning of the work, so traditionalists need not apply. Jones strips the work of any of its conventional trappings: there is not a hint of 10th Century Brabant, there are no knights in armour and there is a swan but no boat. When the curtain rises we see Elsa designing a house, the symbol of her dreams for the future, and the house is the key metaphor of the staging. She builds it through Act 1, it is completed during the wedding ceremony of Act 2 and, as a final deed of sorrow after she asks the forbidden question, Lohengrin torches it in Act 3. The society in which Elsa exists has all the trappings of a totalitarian state: the Herald is the voice of the law, his announcements are broadcast on TV screens making comparisons with 1984, though the costumes are not a million miles away from Germany in the 1930s. Lohengrin’s status as an outsider is reinforced by his costume (a blue t-shirt amongst starchy Brabantine uniforms) which is then adopted by everyone else. Ortrud, an outsider just like Lohengrin, wears a dyed blond, echt-Aryan wig as an attempt to fit in and she destroys everything about this world in the process.
I could say more, but I don’t want to deprive any reader of the pleasure of deciphering this piece of musical theatre for yourself. Suffice to say that Richard Jones’ eye for detail is apparent everywhere, from Elsa’s blithe naivety of the opening scene through to the deeply sad dénouement and Gottfried’s reappearance. Unlike so many modern reinterpretations of opera this one has a sense of direction and trajectory where nothing has been left to chance, and there is a real sense of purpose to what you are seeing. As I said before, traditionalists will not be happy, but to anyone else open to the challenge this production will repay plenty of repeated viewings with intellectual satisfaction as well as dramatic pleasure.
All of this would be valuable in itself, but it is merely the apparatus for some top-notch Wagner singing which would hold its own in this or any age. At the centre of it all stands the extraordinary Lohengrin of Kaufmann. He has already recorded In Fernem Land for his German recital disc and this confirms the potential of that teaser. His dark, baritonal voice has been remarked on often but it makes him marvellously well suited to suffering heroes like this. The sheer beauty of sound is so unique that after a while you take it for granted, but allied to this beauty is marvellous musicianship which invests every scene with a sense of urgency and purpose. In fernem Land is the most famous – but by no means the only – example of this, beginning pianissimo and gradually building in a great arc to the revelation of his name. His off-stage opening address to the swan is heart-stoppingly beautiful and he achieves singing of heroic levels in the declamations of Act 2. In his scenes with Elsa, however, he makes himself vulnerable and aggrieved so that his human side is brought to the fore, something underlined by Jones’ production. The colour of his voice and the strength of his acting quickly brought to mind performances by great predecessors like Ramón Vinay, but I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to mention Lauritz Melchior’s Lohengrin for comparison. His contribution sets this DVD apart as something special, but he is accompanied by an Elsa every bit as fine in Anja Harteros. Her voice has the quality of innocence necessary for the character but there is extraordinary beauty to her assumption. Einsam in truben tagen is a little slow to take off but her vision of the knight is utterly convincing and her address to the breezes in Act 2 is divine in its airy purity. She also darkens her voice for the Act 3 duet so that Elsa’s persistent mania becomes all the more tragic (and thus she is all the more culpable in it). The effortlessness of her assumption, together with its beauty, marks her out as special, already fully inside the role and making a debut every bit as auspicious as Kaufmann’s.
With two such extraordinary leads this set is already a winner but the supporting roles are cast from equal strength. Koch’s Telramund is a man unhinged, utterly convinced by his own rightness in Act 1 and, in the latter sections of Act 2, possessed by incredible zeal in his determination to take on the mysterious stranger. Schuster’s Ortrud, looking suitably awkward under her platinum blonde wig, is compelling without being histrionic and she summons up reserves of convincing power for Entweite Götter, smearing herself in bestial war paint as she does so. I have never heard as young a king as Christof Fischesser, but this is effective in its own way, making Heinrich seem almost out of his depth in the situation he has discovered in Brabant. Either way Fischesser sings with remarkable beauty throughout, making the king’s music come alive in a way I have seldom heard. Nikitin’s herald is entirely musical too, no blustering but valuing the role for its musical as well as structural value.
Nagano’s control in the pit made me a little nervous in the prelude which, to my ears, took a while to settle down, but once the action began he commanded a purposeful, neatly architectural view of this great score, with an eye to the long view and well prepared climaxes coming with the correct degree of power, especially in the transition music of Act 3. The DVD picture quality is good and, mercifully, very intelligently filmed with camera angles and takes that in no way distract and even a few well chosen shots from behind the proscenium which reveal the action in a way the house audience could not have appreciated. Sound quality is good too, though a little too focused on the central speaker.
All told, then, this DVD is a triumph and, for me, jumps straight to the top of the list of recommendable Lohengrins. Abbado has Domingo, though it’s only in 2.0 stereo so you might as well go to either of their CDs as the production is fairly plain. Traditionalists will be happy with the solidly 10th-Century production from the Met on DG, though I thought it just looked daft and the singing is variable, though the conducting is thrilling. The two available Bayreuth DVDs are both effective though, for me, Schneider’s performance beats Nelsson’s due to the strength of Herzog’s production and the finer singing. But it’s Kaufmann and Harteros that I’ll be returning to for the marvellous singing and intelligent stagecraft which reinforce the infinite depth of Wagner’s great dramas in which each generation can find something new.
Marvellous singing and intelligent stagecraft ... see Full Review