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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Piotr Beczala - Lohengrin,
Georg Zeppenfeld - Heinrich der Vogler,
Anna Netrebko - Elsa von Brabant
Tomasz Konieczny - Friedrich von Telramund
Evelyn Herlitzius - Ortrud
Derek Welton - Herald
Four noblemen of Brabunt - Tom Martinsen, Simeon Esper, Matthias Henneberg, Tilmann Rönnebeck
Four pages - Jana Hohlfeld, Monika Harnisch, Annett Eckert, Masako Furuta
Staatskapelle Dresden and Sächsicher Staatsopernchor/Christian Thielemann
rec. live Dresden May 2016
Video director - Tiziano Mancini
Subtitles: German (Orig. Language) English · French · Spanish · Chinese
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOHON 0735319 [2 DVDs: 215 mins]

I can’t remember the last time that I listened to a new recording of a Wagner opera without, so to speak, my mind constantly looking wistfully over its shoulder at performances from the past, but here we have one that can hold its place with any.

The run of performances from which this DVD set is taken was the sort of “hot ticket” event comparable to the recent Covent Garden Otello with Kaufmann, but is, in my view, even finer overall. Both Netrebko and Beczala are associated primarily with the Italian repertoire and were singing their first Wagner roles (if we discount Netrebko’s First Flower Maiden in Parsifal at the Maryinsky in 1997). Rumour had it that Thielemann was “auditioning” them for these roles for Bayreuth in 2018, but either this was untrue or other considerations intervened as the surprise casting for the role of Lohengrin was Roberto Alagna, with Anja Harteros as Elsa.

At this stage of her career, Netrebko no longer has the youthful lightness of timbre that she had 15 years ago and which would have been closer to the traditional timbre for an Elsa. The voice is darker with a slightly looser vibrato than it had then and she cannot float the line in the way Lemnitz, Grümmer or Janowitz could, but this allows her to present Elsa as a stronger figure more in tune with present-day expectations rather than the rather gullible, hysterical girl that the libretto presents. ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ and ‘Euch Lüften’ are a little disappointing as a result, but the greater maturity of her voice allows her to dominate in ensemble passages such as the end of Act 2 and to give as good as she gets in the Act 3 confrontation with Lohengrin when she asks him to tell her his name; I suppose that irritating cliché “feisty” could be applied to Netrebko here.

Beczala is even finer. His voice is absolutely secure and firm throughout its range and the timbre has real squillo at the top. It is also a true tenor sound, and in this respect, for me, he trumps Kaufmann. Kaufmann, however, sings with real detail; he knows how to create magical moments through dynamics and verbal articulation that are not quite within Beczala’s abilities. However, Beczala is, by all other standards, very sensitive, regularly singing quietly, and his legato, for example in ‘In fernem Land’ and ‘Mein lieber Schwan’, is excellent.

The opposing pair are also first rate. Tomasz Konieczny was also making his role debut (he and Georg Zeppenfeld will be in the 2018 Bayreuth cast) and is fully up to its challenges. His voice is strong and full-bodied and probably at its best in moments of intensity. He is excellent in his accusation of Lohengrin at the end of Act 2, the breath control and focus of his voice added greatly to the power of his denunciation.

In almost any other company, Evelyn Herlitzius would probably have stolen the show as Ortrud. Without being in any way crude, this is a truly barnstorming performance and her baleful presence is apparent in every appearance, even in Act 1 where she has very little to sing; she positively blazes in the scene of her disruption of the wedding at the end of Act 2. She conveys the wheedling way in which Ortrud controls Telramund, and in a shocking scene at the beginning of Act 2 where he knocks her to the floor and kicks her there is an underlying sado-masochism to their relationship. She also traces beautifully the way in which Ortrud gains further ascendancy as Telramund weakens after losing the combat with Lohengrin, like the Macbeths in reverse. At the very end, when Lohengrin brings forward Elsa’s ‘dead’ brother to take the crown of Brabant, Herlitzius seems to approach madness in her fury at being entirely thwarted.

The two smaller roles are also very fine. Georg Zeppenfeld is a comparatively young Heinrich but sings with authority. His acting perhaps contains rather too many ‘silent cinema’ facial expressions, but he embodies the character’s calm centre. The young Australian baritone Derek Welton sings the Herald very well, but is rather at the opposite extreme to Zeppenfeld, with an entirely passive face for a lot of the time.

The glory of this performance, however, is sealed by the conducting of Thielemann and the playing of the Dresdeners. Thielemann is not always successful in the symphonic repertoire (his Beethoven cycle was distinctly variable), but in 19th century German opera he is among the greats. Unfortunately, he has been a comparatively rare visitor to the UK over the last 15 years, but his Elektra, Rosenkavalier and Palestrina at Covent Garden in the 1990s and just into the new millennium were among the most memorable I have ever experienced; I will take to my grave the heartbreaking way he moulded the violin phrase immediately before the Marschallin’s “Ja, ja” at the end of Rosenkavalier. He is really the last in the line of conductors in the romantic tradition from Wagner, through Mahler and Nikisch to Furtwängler; pretty well every other present-day conductor traces his line back to Toscanini, and even those who arguably don’t (for example Barenboim) have imbibed a rhythmic strictness which was foreign to the romantic tradition. Thielemann has the ability to characterise every phrase without impeding the flow and momentum; he is a master of Wagner’s “unendliche melos”. To take just one example, listen to the passage in Act 3 that bridges the movement between the bedchamber where Lohengrin has just killed Telramund and the public scene on the banks of the River Scheldt (though not in this production, in which we remain inside the castle). The moulding of the wind phrases wonderfully conveys the tragic consequences for Lohengrin and Elsa of what has just happened, and the transition through the brass fanfares to the celebratory public gathering is judged to perfection. The Dresden Staatskapelle plays magnificently, responding to every detail, and the chorus matches their quality.

The production is very traditional, although the costumes are not strictly historical. The principles wear clothes which are medieval with a 19th century twist whilst the rest of the cast are purely 19th century, most of the men wearing uniforms very like the ones shown in photographs of King Ludwig of Bavaria. Visually, I liked it very much, but I do wish that rather more had been done in terms of ‘personenregie’. Although none of the principles is just a ‘stand and deliver’ merchant, most, especially Beczala, would have benefitted greatly from having a strong guiding hand in making their characterisation and interaction deeper and more detailed. The chorus, too, could have been individualised to a much greater extent. Such things are highly personal, but, for me, much sooner this than some of the outlandish productions we have endured. The technical side of the issue is first rate, and the video direction of Tiziano Mancini concentrates on close ups, whilst used wide shots of the whole set to provide a context for them. Fortunately the camera is not constantly flitting about the stage.

Musically there is not a weak link in this performance, and only those completely allergic to traditional productions need hesitate.

Paul Steinson

Previous review (Blu-ray): Michael Cookson



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