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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin, romantic opera in three acts (1848) [200 mins]
Heinrich, King of the Germans – Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Lohengrin – Piotr Beczała (tenor)
Elsa of Brabant – Anja Harteros (soprano)
Friedrich of Telramund – Tomasz Konieczny (bass-baritone)
Ortrud – Waltraud Meier (soprano)
King’s Herald – Egils Silins (bass-baritone)
Four Noblemen of Brabant – Michael Gniffke, Eric LaPorte, Kay Stiefermann, Timo Riihonen
Chor der Bayreuther Festspiele (Chorus master – Eberhard Friedrich), Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele / Christian Thielemann, Yuval Sharon (stage direction), Neo Rauch & Rosa Loy (stage design and costumes), Reinhard Traub (lighting design), Michael Beyer (video direction)
rec. live, 2018, Festspielhaus, Bayreuther Festspiele, Germany
Subtitles in German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Chinese.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0735616 DVD [2 discs: 209 mins]

Following Tristan und Isolde (2016), Parsifal (2017) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2018), Lohengrin is the next installment of the partnership between the Bayreuth Festival and Deutsche Grammophon. Premiered on 25 July 2018, Yuval Sharon’s staging features a celebrated cast, including the house debuts of Piotr Beczała and Anja Harteros, and the reappearance at Bayreuth (after eighteen years) of Waltraud Meier. Sharon, by the way, is the first American director to work at Bayreuth.

I fondly recall attending the May 2016 sold out first night of a revival of Christine Mielitz’s acclaimed 1983 production of Lohengrin at Semperoper, Dresden. Christian Thielemann conducted. Piotr Beczała as the eponymous hero and Anna Netrebko as Elsa triumphed in the main roles in their full Wagner debuts. Tomasz Konieczny as Friedrich, Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud and Georg Zeppenfeld as King Heinrich gave strong support. In 2017, Deutsche Grammophon released the Dresden Lohengrin on DVD and Blu-ray. Beczała, Konieczny and Zeppenfeld appear on this newly released disc recorded at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival.

Wagner’s operas Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser had all been premièred at Gottfried Semper’s first opera house in Dresden. Wagner intended Lohengrin for that opera house too: he wrote most of it 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 Dresden was scuppered. It later received its première under Liszt’s baton in Weimar in 1850. Its Bayreuth première had to wait until July 1894, when it was given in a staging directed by the composer’s widow, Cosima Wagner.

Lohengrin is based on a romantic medieval legend of the Swan knight Lohengrin who liberates a Princess from pagan evil forces. It is 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, and has many memorable melodies in its breathtaking score. Lohengrin is regarded by many, and I agree, as Wagner’s most engaging and immediately appealing opera.

Controversial Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, expected to stage this new Bayreuther Festspiele production of Lohengrin, withdrew in 2016. When Yuval Sharon took over the stage direction, work on the sets and costumes had pushed on considerably; the husband and wife team Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy had already spent six years on the project. Rauch and Loy are members of the so-called New Leipzig School of German art. The accompanying booklet contains detailed notes by Sharon and by Rauch and Loy. Still, it remains hard to make sense of the various convoluted strands of their psychological intentions, notably power and control, warring and male domination over women.

My ideal Lohengrin, Christine Mielitz’s Dresden staging revived in 2016, is mainly traditional. It focuses on the medieval pomp and pageantry of the mise-en-scène. Thunderbolts in Wagner’s music may have suggested to Rauch and Loy a rather implausible scenic conception: electricity with its predominantly light-blue theme. The set is based on “an overgrown transformer station next to an electricity pylon”. Tapered ceramic electrical insulators reinforce the effect, as do lightning flash symbols. The rather impressionist background that Rauch and Loy employ for their sets is visually enjoyable, nonetheless. They use scrim and backdrop in primarily light blue and white painting of sea and sky. Costumes are uninspiring; they remind me of the contents of a dressing-up box. Lohengrin wears a light blue, belted boiler suit, shirt and tie, and boots. Other main characters, curiously, wear insect wings. Stylistically, the clothes of the people of Brabant and soldiers are mostly based on the period of the 17th-century Flemish painter Van Dyck. They are augmented by a mix of modern accessories such as balaclavas, baseball caps, sneakers and work boots – that often looks wacky and rather ridiculous. Later, as a contrast from the light-blue theme, the use of orange and green feels like an assault on the eye.

Sharon’s staging sadly eschews the traditional use of a swan, or swans, to pull the boat carrying heroic knight Lohengrin, an element so vital to the plot. A model of Mielitz’s spectacular staging was the giant swan. Covered in silver mosaic tiles, it sparkled magnificently. Even in Richard Jones’s 2009 Bayerische Staatsoper production there was a model swan (Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin carried it unconvincingly around the stage). Sharon has Lohengrin’s sword fight with Telramund in mid-air on visible cables using body doubles, which is laughable. In another incongruous change from the original, Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, whom Ortrud traditionally changes into a swan, is transformed into life as a ludicrous Green Man covered in artificial turf.

The cast is generally well-chosen, and three of the principals appeared in Mielitz’s production. Roberto Alagna, scheduled to sing Lohengrin, withdrew. The short-notice replacement was Polish lyric tenor Piotr Beczała. From start to finish, he excels as the mysterious heroic knight of the Swan from another realm, who has come to defend Elsa. He sings and acts with a mix of elegance and expression, and his voice of unwavering technique is in excellent condition. In the aria In fernem Land (Grail Narration) Beczała shows an affecting sense of longing.

German soprano Anja Harteros is a radiant Elsa of Brabant, dreaming of a chivalrous knight who will appear and protect her from perilously close enemies. Harteros too is in fine voice. She steadfastly displays all the innocence, naivety and vulnerability imperative in the role of the noble lady. A stand-out is Elsa’s Dream aria Einsam in trüben Tagen, to which Harteros gives an eloquent, creamy and focused delivery.

Dressed like a reincarnation of Van Dyck but with wings, German bass Georg Zeppenfeld takes the part of Heinrich, king of the Germans. I still do not 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; compare him to such renowned exponents of the role as Matti Salminen and René Pape. He sings well enough throughout his range, but I find his tone and expression to be on the bland side. Tomasz Konieczny does a reliable job singing Friedrich of Telramund, who together with wife Ortrud menacingly plot and scheme against Elsa; the Polish bass-baritone, who has persuasive stage presence, throws himself into the role. Renowned German soprano Waltraud Meier, although still a formidable Ortrud, does not sing the role as successfully as she once did. In the smaller role of the King’s herald, the Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins sings very well indeed, and I look forward to hearing him again soon.

Few conductors know Wagner’s music as well as Christian Thielemann. The partnership with the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele generates significant drama and tension in a full-blooded performance. Led by chorus master Eberhard Friedrich, the Chor der Bayreuther Festspiele clearly relishes Wagner’s choral writing that it knows well. Michael Beyer’s video direction has a good standard of expertise, although he typically avoids intimate close-ups. In the booklet there is Yuval Sharon’s interesting and detailed directorial note Electrifying a Nation, another note by designers Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, a comprehensive synopsis and a helpful track listing. The booklet also contains several production images. No problems of any kind with the commendable sound quality; there is a choice of stereo and surround sound. There are no on-screen bonus features; so, no interviews with principal soloists or with director Sharon and his creative team.

It is unfortunate that I cannot endorse Yuval Sharon’s staid and often ludicrous staging of Lohengrin, even if Beczała and Harteros give exceptional performances.

Michael Cookson

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