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Klaus Florian Vogt's Splendor - Lohengrin on DVD

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available at Amazon
available at Amazon
available at Amazon

Wagner is getting his due on DVD – and while the Ring got the most attention by far (with Levine/MET, Boulez/Bayreuth, Zagrosek/Stuttgart, de Billy/Barcelona, and Haenchen/Amsterdam, there are now five complete rings available), there is more and more choice available for other operas as well. For Lohengrin I count four readily available choices: Abbado with Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer in a traditional 1990 Vienna production (directed by Wolfgang Weber, issued on RM Arts), Levine with Peter Hofmann and Eva Marton in a traditional 1986 MET production, (August Everding, Deutsche Grammophon), Woldemar Nelsson with Peter Hofmann and Karan Armstrong in a fairly traditional 1982 Bayreuth production (Götz Friedrich, EuroArts), and the latest (and finest) addition, a Nagano conducted performance from Baden-Baden (Opus Arte) with Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin and Waltraud Meier as Ortrud, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. A 1990 Unitel production from Bayreuth is sure to be issued soon.

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Lohengrin, MET, Levine, Hofmann
The two productions with Peter Hofmann (rock star, opera- and musical singer, athlete), recently (re)released invite for comparison. (The MET production had previously been available on DVD from Pioneer Classics, the Bayreuth production had been released on LP for RCA.) Peter Hofmann, after all, should be the ideal Lohengrin: heroic, young, knightly, noble – not an overweight tenor trying to wield a sword and trying harder still, to look dignified doing it. Neither production wins much favor with me, but that is not necessarily Hofmann’s fault, although it can be confounding when you expect Lohengrin to appear, but alas, there stands Siegfried from Siegfried & Roy. [Austrian accent: Look at my vite, shiny outfit. Ja?! Do you like da Diamandz on my Sord?] The temptation to pack the blond-maned athletic Hofmann into white and shiny armor proves too tempting for both, Friedrich and Everding – and in both cases the result has a way of looking utterly ridiculous… at the MET even more so than in Bayreuth, four years earlier. Victims of the 80s – and forever so.

While both Lohengrins are live recordings and both directed for television by Brian Large, the Bayreuth production was filmed over several days without an audience, between performances – while the MET production is a one-off affair. Consequently the latter is much more confined in its choice of angles and shots; truly only a filmed version of what happened in the opera house. The picture quality is unsatisfactory in either case, but perhaps more so in the Bayreuth production.

If Lohengrin is less often modernized than other Wagner operas (except Die Meistersinger), I am not quite sure why. The contrast between pure and evil, between the Platonic (or rather: Wagnerian) ideal of love and the only attainable, earthly love, is schematic enough to allow for various takes. Be that as it may, these two productions are fairly straight-forward: Saxon nobles and King Heinrich on the left, Brabantians and Friedrich of Telramund on the right; in the middle enough room – marketed by six lances, for a duel. Neither production bothers with a swan once Lohengrin is washed ashore the river Schelde. The Bayreuth arrival in a moon/night lit scene is fairly impressive; the water lapping on shore, glistening in the light that shines eerily unto stage is not only more intriguing, visually, than Siegfried Lohengrin walking up the hill that hides from the audience’s view the presumed river and swan, it also attempts to separate Elsa’s visions from surrounding reality.

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Opera on DVD is always difficult, because focusing on the audible element alone, as with CDs, is clearly not enough. Yet a DVD offers less opportunity to suspend one’s disbelieve than watching a performance in the opera house; the repeatability of the event places higher demands on the execution of every aspect of it, and the proximity to the singers means that a middle-aged woman playing a young maiden is going to look ridiculous, no matter how much make-up or how glorious the voice. Visually strong productions with very good actors can afford singing that is not necessarily the very best… it may not work the other way around. One might as well buy the CD version, instead. In the case of the 1986 MET production, modest success on both levels – the audible and visual – brings little enjoyment. It features a cast you’d not listen to on record – and a conductor you’d rather not watch on DVD. And what is the point of having an attractive, possibly sexy, realistically heroic Lohengrin, when the women aren’t worth fighting over? No offense to Eva Marton in general, but in 1986 (then 43) no self-respecting knight would have lifted so much as a butter-knife for this ‘pure virgin’, much less a jewel-becrusted longsword. Nor would Telramund likely have been lured into marriage by a past-her-prime 60-year old Leonie Rysanek.

The singing in this MET performance is of sometimes questionable merit. Rysanek shows some disconcerting pitch-ambiguity (usually flat) and has only a few great moments – her “Elsa” howls, for one, are spine-chilling. But even with Hofmann doing as well as one might expect from him and no pronounced weakness on Marton’s side, except the occasional strain and the general, utter, and complete inappropriateness of her hue, look, and type for Elsa, this is a cast of names, not voices. (Marton should scream Elektra’s wailings at me, not be Elsa. It’s all shades of wrong.)

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Lohengrin, Bayreuth, Nelson, Hofmann
Hofmann is four years younger at Bayreuth and a good bit fresher. But Karan Armstrong, not the last word among Elsas herself, is better than Marton in just about every way. She looks believably young(ish), and her big dark eyes alone can conjure innocence better than the nun’s habit does for Marton. Her dreamy Lohengrin episodes reminds of Lizbeth Balsev’s Senta in the Harry Kupfer’s Holländer production. The darkly-seductive attractiveness of Elizabeth Connell’s Ortrud adds much to this production, even if her singing does not rise beyond the notably competent. Amid mildly abstract sets, she creeps around and spreads her seductive evil, easily ensnaring the surprisingly strong character-ed Telramund of the not quite so strong-voiced Leif Roar. He, too, sounds much better here than he does four years later (he is also the Vienna Telramund with Domingo), not only because he is allowed a stronger personality next to Connell’s Ortrud than he is next to Rysanek’s, but also because the top notes, seemingly difficult to hit for him in Bayreuth already, are pure struggle and effort at the MET. Bernd Weikl is a much better Heerrufer than Anthony Raffell whose mastery of the part is put in doubt by this particular New York performance.

The MET production (pace August Everding, whose unparalleled engagement and work for Opera and Theater in Bavaria I much admire) shows what Americans must, for so many years now, perceive as good Wagner (conducting, singing, staging). Which is pitiful and yet surprising, because wherever I turn, it seems to be Americans who know best and most determinedly how Wagner is to be done and especially how it is not to be done. I know no Germans who are as ideologically fixated on one particular Wagner-idea as Americans. But if MET productions are anything to go by, the American expertise deserves to be taken with some scrutiny. Not unlike “foreign-ethnic” Americans who cling to what they perceive to be the traditions of their culture (e.g. Norwegian Americans who insist on eating Lutefisk when no self-respecting Norwegian would ever touch the stuff; pseudo-Germans stuffing themselves with third-rate “Brats”), Wagner traditionalists (most Wagner lovers in this country are traditionalists) cling to an idea, originally misperceived, stuck in a creative rut, and layered with the distortions and bad habits of generations of directors, conductors, and –importantly – interventionist sponsors. I suspect the economic structure of opera in this country gives more say to a ‘traditionalist’ breed of Wagnerian, since having the necessary money and the willingness to give it away almost presupposes old age. The MET production might find favor with some such characters, although the Bayreuth production is conservative enough not to offend them, and better in key aspects. From what I hear and read, Abbado/Vienna might be the best option for the (non-German native; Doming is involved, after all) traditionalist. But there’s something better, altogether, for the open-minded Wagner-lover:

I hesitate to call the Baden-Baden production by Klaus Lehnhoff “non-traditionalist”. For one, "traditionalism" is a vague term that usually means: “Roughly like I remember things as it was done when I was young.” Or, more concisely: “Nostalgia”.

Traditionalist Wagnerians lament an era of singing and staging that stems from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, not from Wagner’s time… (although they will claim that as the ideal) -- just like they prefer their Bach as done by Weingartner, Solti, or Scherchen, not as “Historical Performance Practitioners” like Herreweghe, Jacobs, or Suzuki present it. Here, suddenly, there is very little by way of recalling the “original” as the ideal. Traditionalism, for Wagnerians, is merely the old-fashioned – ornamented by vaguely familiar ideals and hazy memories of times long-gone and, in all likelihood, never actually experienced. Anyone uttering “Nanny Larsén-Todsen, Minnie Saltzman-Stevens, Maria von Ilosvay, Lotte Lehmann, or Lauritz Melchior” with heavenwards rolled eyes while spitting out “Regietheater”, purposefully mispronounced, has most likely never heard any of these singers live (but only on some preferably obscure label that immediately signals “Insider Alert”), nor will likely be able to define what “Regietheater” means, apart from equating it with “Eurotrash”.

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Lohengrin, Baden-Baden, Nagano, Vogt
Lehnhoff’s production is most like those that Wieland Wagner, the master’s grandson, introduced to Bayreuth after the Second World War. The codeword for which is “Neu-Bayreuth”. Being bona-fide Wagnerian (if admittedly twice removed) concepts and well over 50 years old, one might be tempted to think of these stagings as traditional, and Lehnhoff’s work could fancily be titled “Neo-Neu-Bayreuth”. But that approach entails abstract forms (instead of ‘realism’), strictly geometric sets (instead of painted backdrops with castles, flags, and trees), and sharp accentuation with light and shadow (instead of the warm flicker of gas-light) – so it might not serve the current traditionalist mood very well. Lehnhoff, by the way, was an assistant to Wieland Wagner in the post-war days, so the similarities are not too surprising.

Anyone who approaches Wagner with an aesthetic sense instead of an ideology should find the coolly lit, stark sets of architect Stephan Braunfels (Baden-Baden’s own addition to this co-production with Opéra national de Lyon and La Scala – and yes, he is related to the opera composer, his grandfather, Walter Braunfels) beautiful, perhaps even fascinating. A white amphitheater serves acts one and three, a long walkway of steps cutting diagonally across the stage, cutting the light along clear lines, makes for act two. Bettina Walter’s costumes are not easily datable; somewhere from within the last hundred years – perhaps around the time of the Weimar Republic. Lohengrin wears a silver suit, a fair compromise between the gaudy nonsense that Hofmann had to don; silly, clunky armor, and plain modern street-cloth. Klaus Florian Vogt, part William Baldwin, part angelic boy, even wears a helmet (traditionalist rejoice), but his sword is a rapier which may rankle those expecting a heroic two-hander. (It makes the fight-scene choreography much easier on the eyes, though. I’ve never seen a sword-fight between singers that didn’t look clumsy and asinine.)

But beyond the sets and direction which breathes believability and life into all the characters, the acting and singing in this Lohengrin is what makes it stand head and shoulders above the other (non-) contenders. First among several standouts is the scorchingly intense Waltraud Meier who is so perfect as Ortrud. If Elizabeth Connell is “darkly-seductive”, Waltraud Meier – the finest Kundry, as far as I am concerned and a top-notch Isolde and Venus in the bargain – sets new standards for that phrase. In terms of appearance, acting, and voice she matches every image I have of the beguiling, wily, heartless heathen princess. Even closing my eyes, I’ve not enjoyed another singer more than Meier (now with an aged, slightly rougher tone) in this role, except Astrid Varnay in her recordings with Wolfgang Sawallisch (Philips/Decca) and Eugen Jochum (Archipel et al.). No wonder Tom Fox’s excellent, earnest, wooden Friedrich von Telramund can’t resist her in the end – although he’s a fine and independent character whom one hates to see duped twice so shamelessly. His accusation is so reasoned and calm (directed in the style of a parliamentary speech) that one is inclined to believe him, not Elsa (Solveig Kringelborn).

Mme. Kringelborn may not make her mark immediately – but certainly when she turns from blond and soft-eyed good hearted girl to genuinely offended bride in Act two, she reveals the depth of her character. With excellent acting if somewhat uneven singing, she won’t steal the spotlight much from Meier, Vogt, and even Fox, but she suits the production perfectly as does her lyrical gift the music. Speaking of lyrical: The discovery of this disc (everyone already knows that Waltraud Meier is one of the greatest living Wagner singers) is clearly Mr. Vogt. For starters he sings Wagner. His performance might have been as surprising and unusual to the audience as when Wolfgang Windgassen first hit the stage with what was then considered a confoundingly light voice. Vogt, at home in everything lyrical in Wagner, hits the high notes with shameless (vertical) ease; his clarion voice (with that aforementioned element of choir-boy) ringing delightfully. Especially for Lohengrin, whose otherworldliness and naïveté set him apart from the other characters, this is particularly suitable. (I imagine Vogt's would be a very fine Parsifal, too.) With Lehnhoff, Lohengrin stands in for the “misunderstood artist”, separated from the world – and depicted as such in the mildly controversial bedroom scene where a grand piano replaces the bed; narcissistic Lohengrin sitting in front of it, seemingly composing. It is the only such scene where the staging becomes obvious; everywhere else it serves merely as a conduit for the psychological progression of its characters.

Roman Trekel is a luxurious gift of a Heerrufer and Hans-Peter König rounds out with style this splendid cast, crisply and transparently (if, for better or worse, devoid of much particular character) by Kent Nagano. Unlike with the other two DVDs, the picture- and sound-quality is irreproachable, the direction for TV/DVD (by Thomas Grimm) equally superior to the earlier efforts. It is difficult to imagine a Wagner-lover for whom this would not be the clear first choice for Lohengrin on DVD.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Sarver said...

It's a bit late in the day to comment on this review published two years ago but I've just rediscovered this very interesting blog. I am an American (horrors!) and I love this film of Lehnhoff's Lohengrin.

I wish cultured Europeans who are angry at the U.S.A. about the war in Iraq would resist the temptation to condemn us all because of the travesty of the wildly over-rated Metropolitan Opera.

I am of Swedish extraction and i do not gorge myself on salt cod.

Lose the chichés, please.