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Performances

Anna Netrebko as Elsa von Brabant and Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin [Photo © Daniel Koch]
02 Jun 2016

Lohengrin, Dresden

The eyes of the opera world turned recently to Dresden—the city where Wagner premiered his Rienzi, Fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser—for an important performance of Lohengrin. For once in Germany it was not about the staging.

Lohengrin, Dresden

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Anna Netrebko as Elsa von Brabant and Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin

Photos © Daniel Koch

 

The unit set, semi-realistic historical costumes, and laugh-out-loud glittering swan of Christine Mielitz’s tired old production, first seen in the 1980s, need not detain us. It had only one virtue: two operatic stars essaying Wagner for the first time could park all night on the front lip of the stage, comfortably close to the prompter’s box, and sing. This evening was all about the music.

Can Anna Netrebko sing Wagner? Announcement of her first foray on stage provoked many worries, most of which proved groundless. Netrebko herself said that her biggest problem was to master the German text. Yet her crisp (if not quite idiomatic) diction rendered Wagner’s faux medieval poetry easily intelligible. Some doubted that her voice is big enough for Wagner. Yet at forte she easily rode Christian Thielemann’s robust orchestra and in ensembles she cut through massed orchestral sound more vividly than the experienced Wagnerians beside her. Others questioned whether her voice possesses that ineffable, lyrically virginal “Elsa” sound. She certainly can project such a timbre when she chooses to do so. Moreover, the natural quality of her voice—secure and even, warm yet penetrating, shading from a dark cello resonance at the bottom to sweet violin sound with a slight metallic glint at the top—is one of the glories of the modern operatic world. Most people at the Semperoper last Wednesday would have come to hear her sing the telephone book.

Still, Netrebko’s Elsa remains a work in progress. The most deeply moving passages she sang are as lovely as those of any soprano in a quarter century. They tended to come at times of Elsa’s greatest repose and reflection, for example her virtuous glow after seeming to rescue Ortrud or stunned regret after asking the fatal question. Music and drama would come into vivid focus, and, for a brief moment, Netrebko showed that she has what it takes to be an Elsa for the ages.

Lohengrin_8915.pngAnna Netrebko (Elsa von Brabant), Piotr Beczala (Lohengrin), Matthias Henneberg (Dritter Edler), Tom Martinsen (Erster Edler), Tomasz Konieczny (Friedrich von Telramund)

Yet more often she simply oversang. Her instrument has grown remarkably in recent years, yet she still sometimes feels the need to barge into phrases, arias and scenes. She also overuses a particular pressed and slightly spread timbre she has developed to bulk up the voice for spinto parts. All this was entirely unnecessary in a reverberant house like the Semperoper, except perhaps to underscore a few anguished fortissimos.

This overtly emotional approach often places her at odds both with Elsa’s character and with Wagner’s score. Consider the first stanza of “Einsam in trüben Tagen”—the aria of spiritual reverie that introduces Elsa to us as a dreamy mystic. Wagner tells singers exactly how to achieve the appropriate effect: eleven measures at piano or pianissimo describing Elsa’s “lonely…prayer” are followed by a quick crescendo culminating in a powerful cry” to the heavens, followed by 8 measures at the original dynamic markings as a “distant echo” induces her sweet sleep.” In short, it is a gentle dream or vision.

Netrebko sings the passage broadly and more loudly from the outset, expressing emotional agitation more appropriate to Senta than Elsa. She is surely capable of greater vocal focus and more introspective characterization. One must assume that in order to do so, she simply needs time to fully internalize Elsa’s character. Unfortunately, in this era of intense media scrutiny, she may not get it. High-definition cameras in the hall suggest that this performance will be distributed on video. Let’s hope that she nonetheless reprises the role often enough to refine it—perhaps at Bayreuth, where Thielemann is reputed to be planning to reassemble this cast.

The other Wagnerian debut in this production was that of Polish tenor Piotr Beczała, a 49-year old bel canto and early Verdi specialist, in the title role. Few modern singers possess the voice type traditionally associated with Lohengrin. To hope today for the baritonal resonance, honeyed voix mixte, and stentorian declamation commanded by Lauritz Melchior, Franz Völker, Wolfgang Windgassen, Sándor Kónya or even Plácido Domingo is to dream that a glittering Grail Knight will appear to solve our problems in casting Wagner.

Lohengrin_8838.pngDerek Welton (Heerrufer des Königs), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Piotr Beczala (Lohengrin), Anna Netrebko (Elsa von Brabant), Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Herren des Sinfoniechores Dresden - Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden

Instead the role of Lohengrin now belongs almost exclusively to lyric tenors. Ironically, in an era when opera houses pride themselves on eschewing “park and bark” vocalism, the primary virtues of such singers lies almost entirely in producing a sweet and uniform timbre bordering on choir-boy purity, sometimes backed by clever use of falsetto. They find it nearly impossible to project the mysterious combination of heroic warrior and pure saint that led generations to view Lohengrin as a uniquely fascinating figure. We should not forget that, while Lohengrin may live in a monastery, he comes to Brabant to prevail in battle with Telramund (a heavy-weight Wagner baritone) and then to lead armies (a robust four-part men’s chorus) to victory. Lyric tenors often come across like boys sent out to do a man’s job.

Within these limitations of our times, Beczała makes a convincing Lohengrin. The voice, while not as pure or even as some, is technically solid and penetrating, beautiful in the middle and ringing at the top. He is an honest and intelligent musician, more overtly emotional and characterful than most, and able to distinguish subtly and thoughtfully between the more heroic and the more personal aspects of the character. He shapes the music affectingly, points the words well, and deploys a somewhat limited dynamic range sensitively, particularly in the big areas. Only occasional loss of control around the passaggio, some inaudible low notes, and a slight vocal roughness (absent in his more glamorous assumptions of lighter roles) betrays some underlying strain.

The rest of the cast gave strong support. Today major opera houses often cast singers as Ortrud who possess great intensity of expression, but lack refined control over dynamics, intonation and phrasing. Evelyn Herlitzius is an example: she used her Elektra-weight voice to threaten, bellow and vamp. The resulting scenery-chewing—and not just in the famous curse—was entertaining and forceful enough to generate a clear contrast to Netrebko. Never mind that it sometimes bordered on caricature and, in some lower-lying passages, exceeded Herlitzius’s vocal capacity. The 44-year old Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny used nearly as large a voice to snarl his way menacingly through the role of Telramund. He, too, offered a vivid portrayal, even if his interpretation lacked nobility, subtlety or beauty, and his German was only rarely intelligible.

Lohengrin_8789.pngTomasz Konieczny (Friedrich von Telramund), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Herren des Sinfoniechores Dresden - Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden

The bottom of the ensemble was bolstered by two impressive basses. As with tenors, great pure voices of this type are rare today. Still, Dresden-based Georg Zeppenfeld sang a darkly-colored, elegant and clearly articulated König Heinrich, while the young Australian bass Derek Welton, based at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, resoundingly declaimed crystal-clear German as his Heerrufer. Both are singers destined for greater things.

Undergirding it all was Thielemann’s robust Staatskapelle Dresden. Thielemann favors bold, forceful and somewhat rough-hewn Wagner—an approach, some might object, that suits Lohengrin less than other Wagner works. Yet other orchestral virtues—tight ensemble, sensitive vocal accompaniment, subtle emphasis on middle instrumental voices, and thrilling brass in the antiphonal fanfares—assured an impressive result. The chorus sang robustly, though it might have been more precise and transparent in the sections with split parts. The sound resounded in the wonderfully full acoustic of the Semperoper.

Overall, this is the type of high-profile triumph that Dresden must offer regularly to compete with leading German houses in Berlin and München.

Andrew Moravcsik

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