19 Sep 2007
WAGNER : Lohengrin
What’s outstanding about this Lohengrin is the orchestral playing.
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We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.
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Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
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In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
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There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
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What’s outstanding about this Lohengrin is the orchestral playing.
It’s so lustrous that it seems to shimmer, hovering as if suspended in some magical atmosphere. Nagano’s conducting evokes such luminous mystery that literal staging would be intrusive.
Fortunately, with Nicholas Lenhoff as director, we are spared the barbarity of kitsch scenery. We all know this is medieval Brabant, but there’s a lot more to the fundamental drama than that. Lohengrin hasn’t come all the way from Montsalvat just to meet Elsa. Fundamental to this drama is the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. The vaguely Cold War imagery evokes the sense of Brabant as a tense, militarized state which might at any moment be annihilated. This alludes to instability and murderous power struggles which created the situation the country is faced with. This court at Brabant “is” a court in the legal sense, where judgement is being made. It’s a political show trial, for Elsa is being framed for a crime she did not commit. An edge of fear and anxiety polarizes this court : tapestries and fripperies would distract. This production, with its clean, uncluttered lines, pares away non essentials, so the music itself is thrown into stark focus, without distraction. It’s the music, and Nagano’s conducting style, that above all defines this performance.
The Prelude seems to rise out of nothingness, creating a translucence which evokes images to come, when Lohengrin, the shining knight, enters is a blinding blaze of light. Nagano’s precision keeps the orchestral textures clean, so the strings really seem to shimmer and the brass to glow. The playing is exquisite, details tellingly focussed, yet there’s real resonance in the strings and winds. It’s important that Nagano manages to bring out this underlying romance and mystery, because it reminds us what’s at stake – Brabant is a symbol of past and future glory, a place where human values can still flourish even though the present is threatened. This level of playing continues throughout, almost competing for prominence with the vocal parts, for motivs like the “Swan” music were so vividly achieved. Indeed, at times I was listening to the orchestration rather than the singing, longingly waiting for the next interlude. But the music is well integrated into the action. The brass in theVorspiel, for example, are bright and animated, seamlessly leading, at the head of the procession, into the Wedding march. The Morgenröte is particularly entrancing, Nagano getting his musicians to paint in sound a wonderful panorama, depicting the scene aglow with sunrise, trumpets shining, flags unfurled, yet never overwhelming with temporal imagery the fundamentally cosmic nature of the drama.
Solvieg Kringelborn is a charming actress, so despite a constrained vocal range, she’s convincing and full of character. This Elsa, human as she is, has no chance of standing up to Ortud’s machinations, especially an Ortrud as complex and powerful as Waltraud Meier. Meier has inhabited this role so long that she’s able to adapt her nuances to suit the spirit of the production. Here she’s surprisingly glamorous, her wildness contrasting seductively with the stiff formality of Brabant. This may not be her finest performance technically, but her experience only adds to the sense of authority she brings to her characterization. No wonder Telramund, no innocent ingénue, is entranced. Tom Fox has thought his role through, for his Telramund is sympathetic, a good man gone astray, seduced, literally, by the “other” world Ortrud represents. The Telramund/Ortrud relationship is in many ways a counterbalance to the Elsa/Lohengrin relationship, so the humanity Fox brings enhances the levels of meaning. For all the honours bestowed n him, Roman Trekel’s Herald is disappointingly one dimensional.
The moment Lohengrin enters is a devastating piece of theatre. The flash of light which announces him is so blinding that it takes some moments for the eye to adjust. How Wagner would have loved that, had he modern technology. At first Klaus Florian Vogt’s portrayal seemed too solid, particularly against the diaphanous, transparent textures in the orchestration. Yet this, too, added to the realisation. Dressed in an improbably shiny suit, he looks like a creature unused to wearing “normal” clothes. His natural habitat is another, more spiritual plane of existence. Much is made of the swan imagery in his music. At times he even looks like a swan turned into a man. Hence, perhaps the gravity of this portrayal, for swans, though graceful, are immensely strong. It’s also an interpretation that relates to the Old Gods Ortrud serves, who are animist, and carnal, forces of nature. At the end, Ortrud, in defeat, appears in a dress made of feathers. This characterisation of Lohengrin, brings out his essential alien quality. He’s so engrossed at the piano he doesn’t notice his bride approach. Elsa can’t fathom his strange emotional makeup, and is so unsettled that she asks the fatal question. Despite his muscular appearance, Vogt’s voice is pure toned and lucid, his In fernem Land, soaring and floating with the orchestra, evoking the vision of a spiritual existence beyond the ken of the physical world.
Most DVDs come these days with a bonus film, most of them afterthoughts put together as an alternative to a booklet. The bonus with this release, however, is actually useful. Each character talks about their interpretation, as do Nagano and Lenhoff. Nagano was and remains a specialist in 20th century music, which is perhaps why his style emphasises the more esoteric, sophisticated aspects of Wagner’s music. This production is so good because it recognises what Nagano is doing. Lenhoff says, in a moment of great insight, that the Prelude is “the first monochromatic music ever written….the best Philip Glass, you know”. This is a very different Lohengrin, but most intriguing.
Anne Ozorio © 2007