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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin, opera in three acts (1848) [206.44]
Heinrich, King of the Germans – Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Lohengrin – Piotr Beczała (tenor)
Elsa of Brabant – Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Friedrich of Telramund – Tomasz Konieczny (bass-baritone)
Ortrud – Evelyn Herlitzius (soprano)
First Noble of Brabant – Tom Martinsen
Second Noble of Brabant – Simeon Esper
Third Noble of Brabant – Matthias Henneberg
Fourth Noble of Brabant – Tilmann Rönnebeck
King’s Herald – Derek Welton
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Herren des Sinfoniechores Dresden, Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. 17-29 May 2016, Semperoper, Dresden
Video Direction – Tiziano Mancini
Picture: 16:9/1080i
Sound: 24/48 PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.0
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 5322 Blu-ray [215 mins]

Wagner’s Romantic three act opera Lohengrin holds fond memories for me. One of my most memorable nights at the opera house was on 19th May 2016 at Semperoper, Dresden for a sell-out, first night staging of Lohengrin that one might have thought was a new production such was the level of interest in the city. The Dresden Lohengrin was in fact another revival of Christine Mielitz’s acclaimed production with Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko triumphant in the main roles; both making their Wagner debuts. Strong support was provided by Tomasz Konieczny as Friedrich, the magnificent Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud and a suitably steady Georg Zeppenfeld as King Heinrich. I was eagerly looking forward to this Lohengrin release of the DVD/Blu-ray and after just over a year here it is issued on Deutsche Grammophon recorded during live performances and in rehearsal at Semperoper in May 2016.
Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser had all been premièred at Gottfried Semper’s first opera house in Dresden and Wagner intended Lohengrin for that opera house too having written most of the opera in Dresden. With the turmoil of the 1849 uprising in Dresden and Wagner in exile for his part in it, his aim of having Lohengrin premièred in the city was scuppered. It later received its première under Liszt’s baton in Weimar in 1850. Subsequently Lohengrin was first given at Semperoper, Dresden in 1859 where it has since registered over seven hundred and fifty performances.

Mielitz’s production of Lohengrin is actually older than the present Semperoper building in Desden. It was premièred at Großes Haus, Staatsschauspiel, Dresden in 1983 during the DDR era as Semperoper only reopened in 1985 after its reconstruction from Second World War damage. It shows the popularity of Mielitz’s colourful production as by May 2016 it had received one hundred and eleven performances in Dresden. It is Angela Brandt who directs the staging of this latest Mielitz revival.

Lohengrin is based on a romantic medieval legend of the Swan Knight who liberates a Princess from pagan evil forces. It’s an affecting story of indisputable trust, doomed love, vengeance and revenge, compassion, deliverance and the supernatural. Although a substantial opera it is one of Wagner’s shortest in duration, containing numerous memorable melodies in its breathtaking score. Lohengrin is regarded by many, and I agree, as Wagner’s most engaging and immediately appealing opera., which shows the current rankings in terms of performances of the most popular operas worldwide, placed Lohengrin at number forty-three behind Wagner’s highest placed opera Der fliegende Hollander at twenty-three and followed by Tristan und Isolde at number twenty-four.

Christine Mielitz’s Semperoper staging is predominantly a traditional one focusing around the medieval pomp and pageantry of the mise-en-scène which totally destroys the wretched scenic conception of Richard Jones’s 2009 Munich Festival staging, with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. Peter Heilein’s costumes are heavy looking in a curious mix of stylistic periods but none the worse for that. The central characters, courtiers and townspeople wear costumes reasonably relevant to tenth-century Antwerp. However, the corps of soldiers is dressed in what reminded me of late-nineteenth century Prussian uniforms but without spiked helmets. The walls of Heilein’s set are sturdy wooden lattice panels reaching from floor to ceiling, which are hinged and fold open and shut. Unfortunately the plastic backing to the lattice panels creates rather shoddy looking glass effect windows. Spectacular in appearance from both my seat on the night and on this film the huge swan that carries in Lohengrin sparkles magnificently owing to its construction; actually a covering of silver mosaic tiles. Compare this to the model swan that Kaufmann as Lohengrin carries unconvincingly around the stage in 2009 Richard Jones production.

Exceedingly well chosen, this Wagnerian cast for Lohengrin at Semperoper is one that produces great rewards. A few days prior to the first night I interviewed the tenor Piotr Beczala who with a near boyish enthusiasm was clearly relishing playing the role of Lohengrin, the mysterious heroic knight from another realm who had come to defend Elsa. As I saw from photographs taken at dress rehearsal Beczala’s quite ridiculous hair extensions were sensibly abandoned for the first and preceding nights. Resplendent in an upmarket type of glittering chain mail, a crimson gambeson and carrying the inevitable crusader sword Beczala soon settles into the title role with all the assurance that one would expect from an experienced Wagner campaigner; certainly not one making his role debut. Providing a marvellous all round performance high on drama his polished voice is in splendid condition and together with a steadfast technique he is well suited to this lyrical Romantic German repertoire. From act three Lohengrin’s arias Athmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte and Grail narration from act three In fernem Land are strikingly moving with Beczala displaying an attractive fluid tone which thankfully isn’t given to over-brightness that can soon become tiresome. Lohengrin’s sword fight with Telramund is rather unconvincing combat and lame too is Lohengrin and Elsa’s lethal joint sword thrust at Friedrich; no doubt owing to constraints of Health and Safety regulations.

Continuing her shift to more dramatic roles Anna Netrebko excels as Elsa dreaming of a chivalrous knight who will appear and protect her from perilously close enemies. Wearing a brilliant white floor length gown for most of her time on stage the tanned Russian soprano, looking suitably girlish, strongly radiates all the innocence, naivety and vulnerability imperative for the role. Netrebko’s voice has become a potent instrument and Elsa’s Dream from act one Einsam in trüben Tagen is freshly delivered with strong, focused projection of high notes and combined with her remarkably responsive acting creates a curiously euphoric sense of calm.

Count of Brabant Friedrich of Telramund is sung by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny demonstrating convincing stage presence. Together with his wife Ortrud, played by Evelyn Herlitzius, he makes a wonderful job of menacingly plotting and scheming against Elsa and one could easily imagine him stopping at nothing to achieve his aims. Decked out in a plum coloured velvet tappert with black fur trimmings Friedrich reproaches his Ortrud in the act two aria Erhebe dich, Genossin meiner Schmach Konieczny communicating convincing torment, revealing his darkly expressive bass-baritone. One of the loudest cheers was saved for German dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud an experienced campaigner at the Bayreuther Festspiele. In a crimson, grey and black velvet gown with red hair she dominates Friedrich in a powerful dramatic performance full of palpable hatred and malice towards Elsa and Lohengrin. A remarkable actress too Herlitzius’s resilient voice easily rings out filling every corner of the house with marvellous drama.

Distinctively dressed in an orange cotehardie under a long, brown fur trimmed tappert, bass Georg Zeppenfeld does a satisfactory job as Heinrich King of Saxony. Compared to renowned exponents of the role such as Matti Salminen and René Pape I don’t sense much in the way of Zeppenfeld’s natural authority or stage presence that would convince the knights of Brabant to fight with him against the Hungarians. Zeppenfeld’s voice copes well enough, however the lowest notes sound slightly troublesome. I’m not sure anyone currently conducts Wagner as excellently as Christian Thielemann and with his Staatskapelle Dresden in such sublime form this feels like an ideal partnership. Jörn Hinnerk Andresen does a splendid job in preparing the combined choirs who deliver a terrific unified sound clearly revelling in such wonderful choral material.

Tiziano Mancini’s video direction is up to his usual high standard of expertise employing a satisfying variety of shots, with some taken from a higher angle than one expects, although he typically avoids intimate close-ups. It’s a shame there are no on-screen bonus features included, such as interviews with principal soloists and revival director Angela Brandt. Some promotional German interview footage is available on YouTube that could have been utilised. In the booklet there is a helpful track listing, a helpful essay The Dresdner -Lohen-Dream” by Tobias Niederschlag and a synopsis. Also contained in the booklet is a number of interesting production images. No problems whatsoever with the admirable sound quality with a choice of both stereo and surround sound. On the film the vital subtitles available reminded me of my plea for the Semperoper to follow the lead of many European opera houses which successfully use surtitles in English as well as German.

The star of Christine Mielitz’s acclaimed production of Lohengrin continues to shine brightly and it was a privilege to be part of the Semperoper audience during this revival. With the cast in magnificent form notably Piotr Beczała, Anna Netrebko and Evelyn Herlitzius, Mielitz’s staging has been accomplishedly filmed making this Lohengrin an essential addition to any collection.

Michael Cookson


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