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Principally Awful, Generally Fantastic: Lohengrin at the 2011 Munich Opera Festival

When Richard Jones’ Lohengrin premiered at the Bavarian State Opera two years ago (review here), I was torn between admiration and doubt, unsure whether the result was ‘good bad opera’ or ‘bad good opera’. I settled on “wonderful bad production”; the ambivalence stemming from excellent acting, singing, certain scenes working marvelously, small director’s touches being inspired… but a disagreement with the general overarching idea and what seemed like ironic distance.

Since then my opinion has changed considerably – even before I saw the revival for this years’ Munich Opera Festival. The memories of the production have gotten better with time, not only but also because every Lohengrin I have seen since—on DVD and stage—has been such a disappointment that Richard Jones’ ambitious, intelligent interpretation scores many extra credits on sheer creativity and imaginativeness. Where everything else (Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Baden-Baden and Peter Konwitschny’s Hamburg productions explicitly exempted) is just one tired variation or another on a swan-enhanced costume drama, Jones delves into the inner questions of Lohengrin, Elsa, and Wagner and unearths compelling dramatic aspects beyond the knight-in-shining-armor-meets-damsel-in-distress surface.

Lohengrin, the work that enchanted the sixteen-year-old King Ludwig II (who shed his first Wagner-tears listening to it in 1861), is a German revolutionary-nationalistic drama (something Konwitschny highlighted) – in the time’s spirit of unification, not the sense of hyper-nationalism that modern Germans hear emanating from the text. Lohengrin is also about the misunderstood genius-artist… and as such about Wagner (Lehnhoff’s focus). And it is a piece about loneliness and bourgeois, almost banal domestic ambitions, disappointment in women generally and Wagner’s own marriage specifically… all woven into the by now familiar story of the incompatibility of the supernatural and reality (Senta/Dutchman, Elisabeth/Venus). It is that aspect that Jones brings out forcefully, as he centers his Lohengrin around Elsa (who suffers from a pre-marital version of Empty Nest Syndrome), family struggle, and the changes of the Brabantian society who are—like Elsa—first liberated, then abandoned by Lohengrin.

Jones’ building of a house as a metaphor for the whole opera (or even the mass suicide of the Brabantians after the final chord) now convinces me as daring, inventive, poignant… even in the absence of the elements that I was most enchanted by at the premiere (unparalleled singing, acting, and the director’s superb craftsmanship). It turns out Jones’ is not a wonderful bad production, but simply a wonderful production, a perceptive one that makes sense of the music… a point ironically reinforced by the fact that it wasn’t well performed, this time.

It was the singing that nearly sank this performance. Not Martin Gantner’s – the well voiced and beautifully measured Herald of nuance. Nor Kristinn Sigmundsson’s old fashioned classy bass-belting, executed with routine, resonance, and reassurance (but not without betraying his age here and there). And certainly not Evgeny Nikitin’s… whose (initially) youthful, clear, and “R”-heavy Telramund came with splendid diction and fine pronunciation. He carried his character nicely all the way to a threadbare and distraught third act, losing sheen and security only when pushing his voice at peaks or when dramatically appropriate. It wasn’t a particularly musical performance, but a touchingly realistic one and his monologues felt as natural as if they had been spoken.

No, the problem laid with the principals, Elsa and Lohengrin. Emily Magee, in the unfortunate position to succeed Anja Harteros (who had out-sung and out-played Jonas Kaufman at the premiere) was hopelessly out of her depth as Elsa. Her hardened, permanently squeezed timbre, reedy, compressed, and dark, showed no ability to soar. The notes were not always on pitch, the navigation of the text smacked of last-minute understudy. Her acting was mostly earnest and later even impassioned, but it could not make one forget the vocal struggle.

In a way she was lucky to have veteran Peter Seiffert on her side, because his performance—at times comically painful to watch and hear—only made her look better. Seiffert started with a distressing swan-farewell, not enhanced by his natural, soft wobble. A brief improvement in act I was followed by anguished yelps at full force in act II and finally plain crudeness throughout act III where anything below mezzo-forte was sad and above it shrill. To follow dramatically in the footsteps of Jonas Kaufman only made matters worse; the portly sexagenarian in a role (and costumes) designed for youthful heroism and svelte athleticism added at best an element of the ridiculous, more often one of an overage, sleazy Lohengrin-cum-Guido, replete with wrinkled tan, died hair, and gaudy necklace underneath the liberally unbuttoned, untucked bulging shirt.

The presumed highlight was to be Waltraud Meier as Ortrud (superb in said Lenhoff production). Her continuously maturing voice is well suited to the role and her dramatic abilities well known. I, for one, owe her my most moving and indeed formative Wagner moments… I admire her. This performance, alas, did not add to the extant impressions. Her Ortrud started pale, alternatively drowned out in the first act by chorus and orchestra until she pulled a few extra stops (accompanied by a few extra steps to the stage’s edge) and broke through the wall of sound with very consciously placed vocal exclamation marks.

But even in the Ortrud-focused second act, Waltraud Meier looked like she feels she can wing it without bothering to adapt to any particular production (certainly not a Festival production where she didn’t create the character)… playing her (superb) standard Ortrud whether it fits the context or not… in this case in a pantsuit instead of a costume, but otherwise unchanged: Like a petulant child that refuses to play along because it knows it has too much talent to fail. Ortrud’s taking of the suicide-bound gun from Telramund, for example, was tender determination (loving almost!) at the premiere. Now it was an act of aggression with Meier angrily tearing the weapon away… and it considerably lessened the effect, bringing the Telramund-Ortrud relationship back to the usual cliché of Ortrud being solely hard and unfeeling, incapable of warmth even if only for the sake of manipulation. (This was but one of many subtle gestures that didn’t survive the transition to the new cast.)

Michaela Schuster’s curiously seductive Ortrud at the premiere was a dramatic, if not vocal highlight and one expects Waltraud Meier capable of improving any role… not inhibit the dramaturgy. Instead Meier’s Ortrud was limited to very effective affectedness, employed on isolated notes and in prominent moments. Her presence was still great; the voice frayed but employed with economy, most worth hearing in the more intimate, conversational moments when the sweet liquid poison flowed copiously, without any vibrato-impediment. Trying to get by by reputation and experience alone (see Mr. Seiffert), can still elicit standing ovations in memory-loyal places like Munich, but doesn’t make for satisfying art.

The chorus sang loud and enthusiastically but not together in act three. The excellent orchestra, too, had very occasional off moments, too (not even a full day after playing Messiaen’s Saint François d'Assise more than understandable), but Nagano’s direction, devoid of (unnecessary) sentimentality was to the point, dramatic, and expressive and could have been improved only by less fortissimo and more piano.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
K.Nagano / Vienna SO
K.F.Vogt, S.Kringelborn et al.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff
OpusArte DVD
available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
K.Nagano / Bavarian State Opera
J.Kaufmann, A.Harteros et al.
Richard Jones
available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
S.Weigle / GTdLiceau
J.Treleaven, E.Magee et al.
Peter Konwitschny
EuroArts DVD

All pictures (from the 2009 production) courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the main problem of this review is, that it compares to much! So it is totally unable to remark the new, frech and own points of interpretation of this new cast. For example the very individuel and extraordinary well played portrait of Meiers Ortrud. By the way, I heard her singing not as unsatisfactory as you did: For my ears it was very well modeled with much colours and nuances - partly not as dramatic as it was in other Meier-productions, but smoothe and expressive, yes also aggressiv.
I agree that Magee was a weak Elsa and Seiffert (although in some parts here better than in his last Tristan-performances) tried to heal his shortcommings with strained force. But especially Nikinin, I felt, didn't fill his Telramund-part at all: he just dragged himself with much vocal difficulties to the finish.
Well, this is just my impression I wanted to add here...thanks.