Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) - Lohengrin; Annette Dasch (soprano) - Elsa; Jukka Rasilainen (baritone) - Friedrich; Petra Lang (soprano) - Ortrud; Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) - King Henry; Samuel Youn (baritone) - Herald; Stefan Heilbach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun and Christian Tschelbiew (tenors and basses) - Brabantine nobles
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. Bayreuth Festpielhaus, 14 August 2011
OPUS ARTE OA1071D [2 DVDs: 209.00 + 0.26 bonus tracks]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Plácido Domingo (tenor) - Lohengrin; Cheryl Studer (soprano) - Elsa; Hartmut Welker (baritone) - Friedrich; Dunja Vezjovic (soprano) - Ortrud; Robert Lloyd (bass) - King Henry; Georg Tichy (baritone) - Herald; Bojidar Nikolov, Franz Kasemann, Claudio Otelli and Peter Köves (tenors and basses) - Brabantine nobles
Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. Vienna State Opera, 1990
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 957 [2 DVDs: 219.00]
In his work Music and Drama written in the aftermath of his exile from Germany in 1849, Wagner laid down the basis of his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. In future music drama - including his own operas written before that time - should fuse together the disparate elements of drama, music and staging to produce a complete unity that would surpass the achievements possible by any of these elements in isolation - by spoken drama, by orchestral music, or by costume and design. To this end he constructed all his later works with the greatest care to make sure that the various elements taken together should provide an overwhelming impact. All productions of his works should be conceived with this ideal in mind, but unfortunately the synthesis is very rarely achieved - and it is not forthcoming in either of these DVD versions.
To take the later production first, Hans Neuenfels’s production for Bayreuth originally given in 2010 had, like many modern productions, a ‘concept’ - a new vision of the work which would provide new insights into the meaning of Lohengrin as a work. So far, so good. Neuenfels’ concept was that all the characters in the drama were the subjects of an experiment - by whom is not made clear, but presumably by God since he seems to have arranged the whole basis of the plot. The chorus are laboratory rats, sometimes attempting to break out into humanity and sometimes regressing to their animal nature. Well, it’s an idea, and it could be made to work in the context of the drama in isolation with a degree of special pleading in the reading of the text; it would be an interesting insight if Lohengrin were a spoken play in the theatre. The trouble is that it fights for much of the time against the music itself. When Lohengrin picks up the crucifix at the end of Act Two and brandishes it, the orchestra is ironically thundering out the motif which is quite specifically associated with the ‘forbidden question’ of his identity. It is not a moment of triumph, as this production would have it - it is a moment of sudden doubt in the middle of rejoicing. At the beginning of the same Act, when the music of offstage revelry breaks in on the desolate scene it should act as a moment of sudden contrast to the dejection of Telramund and Ortrud - here it becomes a cue for the laboratory experimenters to pull dustsheets off the singers, and any sense of contrast is lost. In the first Act, the entry of Lohengrin is clearly earmarked by the music - and the score - at the moment of climax in the chorus when Elsa lets out a sudden cry of joy. Not here: the moment goes by with no reflection of the musical drama in the staging, and it is only when all the music has died down that Lohengrin comes into view, accompanied by a swan that may be a testimony to the taxidermist’s art but looks nothing like any means of suitable transport.
There are some good ideas, but even these don’t necessarily hang together. It is a nice thought to have Lohengrin and Elsa’s first meeting take place with a degree of privacy, so that his ban on her asking after his name and origins is not made in public and leads more naturally to his declaration of love for her - but again this flies in the face of two of Lohengrin’s own statements in Act Three, firstly when he tells Elsa that their wedding night is the first time they have been alone together, and then later when he reminds the assembled crowds that they all heard Elsa give her promise. It is good to have Elsa and Ortrud interacting on stage from the very beginning of their scene, which can be dangerously static if they are isolated respectively on their balcony and on the square below - but this means that Elsa suddenly has to leave the stage (officially to descend and let Ortrud in, but for no apparent readily reason here) so that Ortrud left alone can invoke her pagan gods to assist her vengeance. Here Elsa just sits down at the back of the stage, with her back to the scene, and pretends not to listen to the outburst that is going on behind her. The concept of King Henry as a doddering old fool only just hovering on this side of dementia might work in the context of a stage play - but it fights every inch against the bold and forthright music he has to sing. And would any King, however deranged, with the slightest sense of his own dignity let his Herald boss him around the way this one does? The scene between Ortrud and Telramund works superbly, as it always should if the director has any sense of drama at all; but I am not too sure about the Gauleiter-like costumes they are wearing, or the frozen facial expression which Ortrud adopts throughout, for all the world like Angela Merkel refusing the Greeks a loan. Actually one understands that the German Chancellor attended this Bayreuth production twice when it was new, so maybe she was taking hints.
There is also a real problem with the realisation of the Prelude. In his later works Wagner was insistent on the idea that the prelude to any individual Act should prepare the audience mentally for the drama that is to be revealed when the curtain rises; and he carefully inserted directions for that event, which are all too frequently disregarded by modern producers. But what we are given here simply fights against Wagner’s music. We know what Wagner intended to portray in the prelude to Lohengrin, because he has told us - a vision of the Holy Grail descending to earth, and finally being taken back into heaven. Following on his idea of the characters in the drama as laboratory rats, Neuenfels here presents us with an animated film of rats fighting over a crown - which looks horribly like an imitation of the cartoon of Watership Down - and then with a scene of Lohengrin trying to fight his way out of the experimental cage. At the moment when the Holy Grail is revealed on earth in Wagner’s music, Lohengrin is seen to fail and sink down in despair - exactly the opposite of what the music is telling us at the same moment. One does not need to follow Wagner’s scenario slavishly, but to substitute a staging that deliberately contradicts every emotional fibre of the music does neither the producer’s conception or Wagner’s heavenly string writing any favours at all.
The Third Act Prelude, music of rejoicing which commemorates the wedding of Lohengrin and Elsa, is given an equally gratuitous gloss which goes in every way against the spirit of the music. Here the cartoon rats hunt down and eat a dog, and this same sequence is shown again as a backdrop to the King’s address to his troops at the beginning of the final scene - where it might possibly have more relevance, but the same image cannot possibly be applied to both situations. At the very end Lohengrin perversely enough does not leave Elsa, which makes nonsense of his protracted farewells - although not so protracted, since a cut of 100 bars is made here. Wagner himself insisted on cutting the second section of Lohengrin’s Narration because he said he held up the movement towards the conclusion. I think he was wrong, as the music is fine and the text helps to explain Lohengrin’s otherwise mysterious appearance in Brabant at the precise moment he is needed. That said, this additional excision is wanton barbarism of which Bayreuth should definitely be ashamed. Apparently the cut was made by Sawallisch in 1962 - presumably with Wieland Wagner’s agreement - but it remains disgraceful. Possibly the producer, and Wieland Wagner before him, objected to the militaristic tone of the words, but the lengthy introduction to the final scene - which is equally military in mood - is retained, although the stage is shrouded at this point in near-darkness with none of the historical exegesis which Wagner specifies. At the very end the presentation of Gottfried as a homunculus hatched from the swan’s egg is not only incredibly disgusting as he pulls his umbilical cord - in an egg? - apart, but is grotesquely ugly and totally unbelievable as a revelation of the new Duke of Brabant.
What this all comes down to is an unwillingness to let Wagner the composer have his due, as well as Wagner the dramatist; and the disparity is fatal. The fact that practically all modern productions of Wagner suffer from exactly the same problem does not make the failure to grasp the ideal of the synthesis of the arts any the less lamentable. Such productions divorcing music from drama were indeed inaugurated at Bayreuth after the Second World War by Wagner’s grandsons, taking as their watchword Wagner’s own recommendations to always look for something new. Wieland Wagner in particular trimmed back on the realistic productions, shaving scenery and drama to their bare essentials and allowing Wagner the composer to have his due at the expense of Wagner the dramatist. It is this sort of influence that is apparent in the Vienna production on the second of these DVDs.
Wagner’s preludes do present a problem in terms of video presentation, because a home audience cannot or will not accept the idea of simply looking at a blank curtain for some five minutes; it is frequently resolved, as it is here, by video directors by giving us a view of the conductor and orchestra, but this does not serve to create the mood that Wagner desires. One of the best solutions seems to be that adopted by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in his Tristan, where in the prelude we are given evocative and symbolic seascapes which both reflect the drama to come and allow the viewer to enter into the sound-world without visual distractions. We are also given a view of Abbado and his orchestra not only during the specified scene change halfway through Act Three, but also during an unauthorised scene change at dawn in Act Two.
The scenery in Act One in Vienna is almost totally non-existent; although the costumes are realistically tenth century and not very attractive, the characters seem to exist in a historical vacuum. Just before Lohengrin’s entry the grey featureless background acquires a projection of a stylised swan, and then as he arrives we are confronted with a metallic swan construction; as soon as this leaves the grey background fades to black and so remains. In the Second Act we are given a side shot of the minster entrance and the Kemenate where Elsa lodges - with its balcony - stretches across the back of the stage; during the inauthentic scene-change the Kemenate swings backwards through a ninety degree angle. The sole purpose of this appears to be to allow the procession to the minster to take longer to achieve; but the speed at which this procession moves could cause even a tortoise to accuse it of lethargy. Indeed throughout this production all movement on stage is glacially slow, and for much of the time the singers simply stand in one spot to deliver their lines. At the end of Act Two Ortrud does indeed threaten Elsa with a glance of menace at the point the Ban motif is heard, but Elsa has to unconvincingly pause and actually turn around to look at her for this to be possible. Otherwise the dramatic cues in the music are given in a slovenly manner; Lohengrin appears two bars after the climax of the music announcing his arrival, and Elsa comes onto the balcony a couple of bars after the change in the timbre of the music has announced that fact. The stage direction is credited to Wolfgang Weber, but there is little evidence of his involvement at any point.
The scenery is no more substantial in the Third Act. At the very beginning the Bridal Chorus takes place in a colonnaded avenue under a starlit sky, but as soon as the chorus have withdrawn the scene descends once again into stygian gloom in which no vestige can be discerned of a bridal chamber. Incidentally, both here and at Bayreuth the chorus are onstage from the very beginning, which not only contradicts Wagner’s specific instructions but ruins the intended contrast between the initial statement of the theme by the chorus offstage, and its subsequent repetition once the chorus have entered. At the end of the scene we are again returned to the orchestra pit while Abbado conducts his way vigorously through not only the interlude between scenes but through the whole of the opening section of the following scene for which Wagner has given detailed staging instructions. There seems to be no reason for this, as the scene now unveiled hardly differs from that which went before except that the darkness has now given way to a louring grey. At the end the metallic swan reappears. One is amazed to see that two names are credited with the design of the scenery in this production; to paraphrase Rudolf Bing, any self-respecting opera house could have got it this minimal with one. At the end we are subjected not only to the same objectionable cut as at Bayreuth, but this excision is extended from 100 to 168 bars; the result of this is not only to rob us of an extensive section of music but also to rob Elsa of any chance to show repentance, and Ortrud has more to say about the departure of her husband than she does. The singers are thrown back almost entirely on their own devices, which are often very good; but there is no evidence of a directorial hand holding the action together.
The singing now falls to be considered. At Bayreuth Klaus Florian Vogt is an excellent swan knight, and his voice when he enters has exactly the right ethereal quality that one desires with not the slightest hint of strain or edge that is sometimes evident when Wagnerian heldentenors try to sing softly. Later on one does miss some of the sheer heft that some of the lines demand. “You will never triumph here”, he tells Ortrud; but there is no sense of command here, merely an almost apologetic observation. On the other hand Vogt floats the narration with great beauty, and rises to the final peroration with good sense of drama. This same narration is the weakest point in Plácido Domingo’s performance, slightly too fast - he was slower in his CD recording with the normally volatile Solti - and not quite distanced enough at the start. The cut referred to before means that we move directly from the narration into the farewell, which makes for an extremely extended final scene for him at the end of a long evening. Not that he shows any signs of tiredness, and his performance as a whole has all the warmth and command that Vogt lacks. Some may object to his clearly unidiomatic German, but in a cast that also includes an American Elsa, a Czech Ortrud, a British King and a Hungarian Herald it does not stand out for that reason.
Regarding the Elsas, the Bayreuth and Vienna performances are more evenly matched. Cheryl Studer, caught in Vienna in her prime before her all-too-brief career collapsed, is not as sheerly beautiful to look at as the younger Annette Dasch in Bayreuth, but she sings with perfect control and beguiling tone throughout, and her top notes are cleanly and confidently taken. Dasch is nearly her match - the top notes not quite so thrilling - and clearly has a glittering career in front of her if she continues in this vein. It is amazing to learn that this was her first excursion into Wagnerian territory. Robert Lloyd as the King is, as always, a solidly strong singer but Zeppenfeld in Bayreuth is excellent as well and his firm declamation makes nonsense of the befuddled characterisation he is asked to assume.
As the villainous couple both Harmut Welker and Jukka Rasilainen have the fire that the Weberian outburst at the beginning of the Second Act requires. They also possess good solid top registers which encompass both the high G in that outburst and the sustained high F sharps in the duet at the end of the same scene. In the part of his wife, Dunja Vezjovic sounds distressed on her highest notes, but otherwise gives a nicely nuanced performance that discovers plenty of variety in a role that can degenerate into sheer squalliness. That is a danger that Petra Lang, despite more solid high As, does not avoid; she is a monochrome character and her lower notes do not have the strength to penetrate the orchestra without forcing. It is not a pleasant sound. Both Heralds are good, but Samuel Youn is clearer in both diction and sound than Georg Tichy.
The chorus at Bayreuth, despite being hampered by their rodent headgear - they become much clearer when they take their rat-heads off in the final scene - are more firmly disciplined than their somewhat worn-sounding Vienna counterparts. Both however produce plenty of good solid sound when, as frequently, it is demanded. The Bayreuth orchestra are nicely disciplined under their young Latvian conductor, and the recorded sound is better than that given to the Vienna players under Abbado. That said, Abbado clearly loves this score and his reading has a greater passion which Andris Nelsons strives in vain to achieve.
Taken however as a representation of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk these productions effectively sink themselves without a trace. The unfortunate fact is that there doesn’t appear to be a Lohengrin in the catalogues which even approaches the idea of a conception which marries music and drama in a seamless and unified whole in the manner which Wagner expects. There are productions by Nicholas Lehnhoff and Richard Jones which impose alternative directorial conceits. Judging from the excerpts I have seen Lehnhoff’s rather less damaging than Jones’s schoolroom production. The only one which seems to strive in any way to mirror the luminous beauty which shines through the score is an earlier Bayreuth production by Werner Herzog set in a desolate snowscape. That must at present be regarded as the best video version of Lohengrin available. A Metropolitan Opera production is effectively torpedoed - on the basis of the YouTube excerpts I have seen - by the performances of Peter Hoffman and Eva Marton, both for different reasons totally uncharismatic. Another version available, again from Bayreuth, is by Götz Friedrich, highly regarded in its day but again afflicted with some indifferent singing. Would somebody at Covent Garden consider whether we might have a recording of the 2009 revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production? This was well sung and conducted and at least made a serious attempt to engage with the meaning of the work as a whole.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
see also reviews of the Arthaus (Abbado) and Opus Arte (Nelsons) release by Jim Pritchard
Since writing the above review I have had the opportunity to see Nicholas Lehnhoff’s production (referred to above) in its entirety. His staging, updated to the twentieth century with Lohengrin looking like a yuppie merchant banker in his silver suit, is not always wholly true to Wagner’s precise directions. That said, he always realises the importance of the relationship between the music and the action, none of the essential points are missed, and he gets real dramatic performances from his principals. The singing itself varies from the very good - Waltraud Meier excellent as Ortrud and Hans-Peter König powerful as the King - to the less satisfactory, with both Solveig Kringelborn as Elsa and a younger Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin seriously underpowered in places. What however totally rules this out of court as a version of Lohengrin on DVD is the wholesale cutting which Lehnhoff and Kent Nagano inflict upon the score. This extends to not only the full-length excision in the final scene employed in Vienna, but also fifty bars of chorus as the men greet the dawn in Act Two and even more extraordinarily the whole of the central section and repeat in the Wedding Chorus. Wagner was particularly proud of his writing for the chorus in Lohengrin, and these slashing cuts demolish one whole segment of his scheme. What a shame.
Taken as a representation of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk these productions sink themselves without a trace.