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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1851)
Heinrich der Vogler - Falk Struckmann
Lohengrin - Michael König
Elsa - Camilla Nylund
Telramund - Robert Hayward
Ortrud - Michaela Schuster
Herald - Daniel Schmutzhard
Chor und Extrachor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, Oper Frankfurt, March-April 2013
OEHMS CLASSICS OC946 [3 CDs: 75:06 + 72:31 + 67:44]

I found myself in Frankfurt when this performance was on, and I very nearly changed my travel plans to allow me to see it. I didn't, but this recording, for which we should be grateful, makes me rather sorry I missed it in the flesh.

The first noteworthy thing about this set is the live-ness of the acoustic. You could never mistake this for a studio recording, and that's something that not everyone will enjoy. There is stage movement and a good deal of audience noise, for example. The benefits, however, are a very "lived-in" feeling of the score being brought to life before your ears, and the palpable sense that this is an unrepeatable event being forged in the moment. That generates excitement and stage intensity that gives the performance chemistry which I found very compelling and much more energising than distracting. The recording balance is very carefully constructed, too, favouring the orchestra ever so slightly, but without ever endangering the singers who sound clear and unobstructed all the way through. As for de Billy's direction, it is given the space to be exciting and calculating as the score requires. The ensembles all sound good, for example, and the singing of the chorus, so important in this opera, is magnificent throughout.

The soloists are all very good, too. Michael König is a four-square, dependable Lohengrin, who is fully inside the role, both in the clarity of his tone and the cleanliness of his vocal colour. He has its heroism in the first two acts and some of its vulnerability in the third. At the end of a long evening, his Grail Narration is perfectly fine rather than wonderful, but if that sounds like faint praise then his performance is certainly worth more than that and is well worth hearing. There is a pearly beauty to Camilla Nylund's voice that makes her very well suited to the role of Elsa. She has a beautifully plaintive quality to her first appearance that makes Einsam in trüben Tagen very effective and her address to the breezes is meltingly sweet. A palpable sense of panic sets in during the last act, though, and her contributions to the final scene are very poignant.

Michaela Schuster is calmly imperious as Ortrud. No histrionics here: you get the impression that this Ortrud is fully in control of events and that her composure barely ever slips. This makes her erupting rage at Entweihte Götter even more powerful. She is brilliantly calculating too, though, as you'll hear when she plots with Telramund at the start of the second act. Listen to the contempt with which she spits out the word "held" when describing Lohengrin. Struckmann has the usual touch of gravel to his voice, but that helps to set his authoritative King aside from the more vigorous but more insidious Telramund of Robert Hayward.

So all is pretty good, here. This isn't a first-choice Lohengrin: that privilege still goes to Kempe with Abbado and Solti nipping at his heels. Nor is it one for newcomers, despite its many virtues, principally because, as I am told is their habit, Oehms' booklet includes no English text except a synopsis and cast biographies. While you get the full libretto it is in German only. So this is a Lohengrin to go to once you know the opera, but once you do so I think you'll find a lot in it to enjoy.

This is the first of Oehms' Frankfurt Opera recordings that I have come across and I enjoyed this one so much that I shall certainly look out for more in the future.

Simon Thompson