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Reviews

25 Nov 2019

Lohengrin in Munich

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald.

Lohengrin, Bavarian State Opera

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Ensemble, Bavarian State Opera

Photographs courtesy of Bavarian State Opera

 

It was also—and perhaps more surprisingly to me—exceptional in that fine musical performances rescued the evening from one of the silliest and most bizarrely irrelevant productions of the work I have ever seen. (For what it is worth, staging Lohengrin is an issue to which I have given a good deal of attention; it is, for instance, the subject of a chapter in one of my books, After Wagner .) Increasingly, I have felt that opera performances working only as music—shorthand, I know—and not as theatre have little interest for me any more; I may as well stay at home and listen to a recording or read the score. This, however, was exceptional in that orchestra, singers, and conductor managed to convince me that I had experienced a dramatic performance of Lohengrin, acting included, that had little or nothing to do with what Richard Jones had served up.

Karita Mattila (Ortrud), Anja Harteros (Elsa von Brabant).jpgKarita Mattila (Ortrud), Anja Harteros (Elsa von Brabant).

Jones presented a banal tale, if one may call it that, of a middle-aged, middle-class heterosexual couple—a neglected group of whose experience we all should hear more—marrying somewhere provincial and building a new house there. That seemed to be it, save for when the house project did not work out as planned and the house was no longer present. There was occasionally promise of something else: brown-shirted uniforms suggested something obvious at the start, yet disappeared in favour of an eccentric combination—at least in any circles I know—of Tracht and tracksuits. (Maybe savings needed to be made to finance the crane that hoisted the roof onto the house.) For some reason, a difficult-to-read floral inscription in the front garden imitated that on the front of Wagner’s Wahnfried villa. Doubtless one could propose all manner of symbolic explanations concerning what various things might have meant; one would have to, really, since the production appeared not to bother. I am sure we are all, ‘in a very real sense’, as an Anglican bishop might have it, building a house, and so on and so forth, but really. King Henry the Fowler appeared to be a marriage celebrant, not unreasonably confused by proceedings around him; quite who most of the others were eluded me. Swords sat awkwardly with the narrative, to put it mildly, yet at least reminded us that Wagner’s opera has a more involving story to tell. All was blocked well: credit where credit is due to the Abendspielleitung (Georgine Balk) and, presumably, to the original production. I cannot imagine otherwise what else, if anything, ran through Jones’s head. O for a Hans Neuenfels, a Peter Konwitschny, a Stefan Herheim…

Lohengrin ‘itself’ fared much better. Anja Harteros took a while to warm up, her first act Elsa veering in and out of focus, verbally as well as musically. Once focus had been achieved however, hers was a battle royal with rival Schillerian queen—and sometime Elsa—Karita Mattila. To see and hear the two was to experience something akin to a duet between finest woodwind principals, timbres contrasting yet complementary, albeit with finely honed words and gesture too. The greatest Ortruds command attention even during the first act, the character onstage yet having little to sing. Waltraud Meier did the first time I saw her on stage; so here did Mattila, her interpretative and communicative zeal amply compensating for the vacuity of Jones’s production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin did not settle immediately and is famously not to all tastes. For me, it works considerably better than his other Wagner roles, a sense of unearthly ‘purity’ not at all inappropriate; like his Elsa and Ortrud, he offered a consummately professional performance throughout. So too did Wolfgang Koch as Telramund. An estimable, always likeable artist, he sometimes seemed slightly out of sorts, but there was no doubting the intelligence of his properly Wagnerian blend of word and tone; likewise Christof Fischesser’s King Henry. Gantner’s excellent Herald fully lived up to expectations, as did the Tölz trebles acting as pages and their Brabantian noble colleagues.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Anja Harteros (Elsa von Brabant).jpgKlaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Anja Harteros (Elsa von Brabant).

If the orchestra was not always quite on peak form, the first act Prelude a little bumpy at times, one would have had to be wishing to find fault to be disappointed. Its strings sounded golden, more Vienna or Dresden than, say, Berlin, though there were naturally darker passages too, not least during the Prelude to the second act. Characterful woodwind and a brass section capable of sometimes breathtaking tonal variegation offered further orchestral pleasure and insight. Lothar Koenigs’s direction of the whole was sane, sensitive, and unassumingly purposeful. It certainly never drew attention to itself, which, after a certain conductor at Bayreuth this summer was more than welcome, but instead gave the impression of ‘natural’ communication of Wagner’s melos. There were a few cases of surprising disjuncture between pit and chorus, but they were rectified soon enough and did little to spoil one’s enjoyment of some fine choral singing. All in all, then, an interesting evening—if not quite in the way one might have expected.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin

King Henry the Fowler - Christof Fischesser, Lohengrin - Klaus Florian Vogt, Elsa - Anja Harteros, Friedrich von Telramund - Wolfgang Koch, Ortrud - Karita Mattila, King’s Herald - Martin Gantner, Four Brabantian Nobles - Caspar Singh/ George Virban/ Oğulcan Yilmaz/ Markus Suihkonen, Four Pages - Members of the Tölz Boys’ Choir, Gottfried - Lukas Engstler; Director - Richard Jones, Conductor - Lothar Koenigs, Designs - Ultz, Lighting - Mimi Jordan Sherin, Video - Silke Holzach, Choreographical Assistance - Lucy Burge, Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Stellario Fagone), Bavarian State Orchestra.

Nationaltheater, Munich; Thursday 21st November 2019.

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