Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 27 April 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Edith Haller
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Telramund – Gerd Grochowski
King Henry the Fowler – Kwangchul Youn
Herald – Boaz Daniel
First Noble – Haoyin Xue
Second Noble – Ji-Min Park
Third Noble – Kostas Smoriginas
Fourth Noble – Vuyani Mlinde
Pages – Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Amanda Floyd, Kate McCarney

Elijah Moshinsky (director)
Andrew Sinclair (associate director)
John Napier (designs)
William Hobbs (fight director)
Oliver Fenwick (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The good news is that, musically, this proved a strong Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov, who has recently recorded the work – a rarity indeed in these straitened times – elicited some of the best playing I have heard from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Perhaps most remarkable were the sweet-toned strings, their presence immediately signalled in a luminescent first-act Prelude; so sweet, indeed, did they sound that one could have believed oneself in Vienna. Each section, however, provided aural delight, the woodwind delectable and the brass warm-toned, never brash. Bychkov’s shaping of the work’s three acts was very fine; there was certainly none of the stopping and starting that have so disfigured a number of recent Wagner performances at Covent Garden. My only real criticism was a very small number of occasions, most notably at the end of the first act, when the tone was lightened in conjunction with a greater metrical rigidity. Claudio Abbado showed a good number of years ago that one can present a somewhat Italianate Lohengrin without cheapening Wagner in a Verdian direction. These were minor blemishes, however, upon a generally excellent account.

Johan Botha was a successful Lohengrin, at least in vocal terms. Apart from a few instances when he seemed to be tiring, during the second act, his tone was well projected and his line well moulded. It is only really by comparison with Klaus Florian Vogt’s truly stellar performance in Berlin earlier this month that one might register any vocal disappointment. The other reservation one might entertain is his stage presence. Far be it from me to suggest that one should prefer singers on accounts of their looks, or even their figure, but in physical stature, Botha is something of a throwback – and a half? – to an earlier age, with acting skills to match. A charismatic hero he is not. Edith Haller displayed considerable virtues – as well as slightly but fatally flawed virtue – as Elsa. Her occasional veering towards a slightly more Italianate form of expression might conceivably have bothered some but her attention to melodic concerns was far from out of place here. Haller has a beautiful voice but is clearly also an intelligent singer. Petra Lang proved an estimable Ortrud. If she could not banish memories of Waltraud Meier in this production six years ago, that would have been to ask the impossible. Lang may not quite possess Meier’s extraordinary stage presence but she performed her role very well, with commendable attention both to detail and to the longer line. If Ortrud did not make as strong an impression as she might have done until later on, that was largely a matter of being hamstrung by so inert a production. Gerd Grochowski was due to assume the role of Telramund later on in the run but Falk Struckmann’s tracheitis ensured an earlier Royal Opera debut for Grochowski. It was a pity not to be able to hear Struckmann who, time and again, has shown himself to be a fine Wagnerian (although only once at Covent Garden, as Amfortas). Grochowski confirmed the impression I had in the Berlin performance previously mentioned: he sings musically but can sometimes be a little overpowered by the orchestra. A certain degree of weakness might be considered in character but Friedrich needs at some level also to be a credible alternative leader. Kwangchul Youn had also appeared in Berlin, as King Henry. His performance here was more mixed; indeed, his surprising insecurity in the later stages of the first act made me wonder whether he was ill, although no announcement was made. Choral singing was of a predictably high standard, if without quite the edge of Eberhard Friedrich’s State Opera Chorus for the Unter den Linden house.

So, mostly good news concerning the musical performance. There remains to be considered, I am afraid, Elijah Moshinsky’s production. It is not only in the light of Stefan Herheim’s magnificent achievement in Berlin that Moshinsky’s effort pales; I had sought in vain to discern any dramatic insight when the production was last mounted in 2003. ‘Traditionalists’ might, I suppose, like this lifeless pageant, in which absurd Christian and pagan totems are wheeled on and off, a risible combat scene makes one wonder about – but finally decide against – comedy having being intended, and the direction of the chorus is more or less limited to walking on and off and having each member cross himself. (With respect to the chorus, Herheim’s virtuosity had been almost incredible.) However, even the notoriously unadventurous Covent Garden audience was distinctly lukewarm in its appreciation of the director when he appeared on stage. Most productions, I admit, would look tired, were they revived after more than thirty years, but I cannot imagine that this had anything to offer even in 1977.

The ‘idea’ is clear enough, that of a clash between paganism and Christianity. This is undeniably present in the text but in itself does not get anywhere near to the heart of Wagner’s dramatic concerns. It is rather as if someone were to claim that Tosca is ‘about’ the French Revolutionary Wars. One might, of course, make something rather interesting out of a clash of belief systems, especially given the undeniably nationalistic aspects of Lohengrin – more prominent than in any other of Wagner’s dramas – but there does not seem to have been made even the slightest attempt to address any issues with contemporary resonance, or indeed to explore any issues at all. I do not mean to imply that the work must be updated, or even pulled unduly in our direction; however, remnants of paganism in tenth-century Germany are not in and of themselves, I suspect, of particular interest to many audiences today. Nor were they to Wagner. Lohengrin is not an historical drama; it is a myth with aspects of historical drama attached, somewhat uncomfortably so. This Lohengrin, by contrast, appeared almost as if it were a parody of Meyerbeer. If only it had been, it might just have been a little more interesting. Let us hope that, the next time Wagner’s Romantic opera returns to the Royal Opera House, it is in a new production. The wildest excesses of Regietheater, even Calixto Bieito at his most puerile, would be preferable to this. A somewhat odd hint of the latter – not really, I know – came at the end with the return of Gottfried and a prolonged, distinctly sexual embrace between him and Elsa. I really did not know what to make of that at all, despite the references in the programme to Freud and taboo; it seemed to come from nowhere, whereas one could have predicted it only too readily with Bieito and his ilk. The totems must also, I assume, have pointed to Freudian influence, but I did not feel this reflected or explored in the action; again, I can only wish that I had.

One final matter: many of the programme essays were of a very high standard. John Deathridge and James Treadwell are always very much worth reading on Wagner. Likewise Patrick Carnegy on production history, although I thought him perhaps a little too diplomatic in his reference to Moshinsky. But if Wagner himself is to be given space – and it seems to me an excellent idea that this should be so – can it please be in a new translation? To present him even in an adaptation from William Ashton Ellis will make the composer, especially to those less versed in his prose works, seem like a raving lunatic. Ellis is often surprisingly accurate but his style is so bizarre that it is best restricted to those who know the German already.


Anonymous said...

I think you are inconsiderate of me and my production.But few facts.The revival is of a production 32 years old.We had 4 chorus sessions for a 4 hour opera.Berlin had eight weeks.The principals turned up in frequently flying in and out and thenfalling with flu.The Productions was performed by a young athletic cast and delved into the ideas of Freud's Totem and Taboo...the text examined and performed humanistically without a bombastic approach to the music.Cuts in the score which Wagner himself sanctioned were added to the production adding a strain to any conceptual line and reducing reheasal time.30 minutes.A lighting designer was not permitted.How can you compare the possibility of staging anything coherent against a German opera house given full resources and time.
Ritual,taboo,incest and the emotions of ambivalence were powerfully felt.Did you see it? Elijah Moshinsky

Mark Berry said...

Dear Mr Moshinsky,

First, I should like to thank you for commenting. It is rather difficult for me to know what to say. I wish that I had felt otherwise, since it genuinely gives me no pleasure to write in what might well be considered to be excessively negative fashion. I do not think I was inconsiderate, although I might justly be accused of hostility. By that, I mean that I considered what I said before writing and then again before publishing. One apology I must offer, however, is that, through my technical incompetence, I initially missed out the little section in which I referred to Freud and taboo. I fear that it will be of little comfort, since I honestly cannot say that I saw this to be truly expressed in the production. On the other hand, whatever I might have said concerning the longevity of your production, it must clearly be thought by the Royal Opera House to have considerable virtues, or it would not still find itself staged.

What you say about the 'facts' is naturally of interest. Illness never helps and I sympathise, both with you and the cast. I also sympathise with respect to rehearsal time. However, this is the Royal Opera, not a small touring company; nor is it the case that the Royal Opera operates a Vienna-style repertory system. Covent Garden really ought to be able to offer something more satisfactory. If it cannot, it should register protests concerning the appalling level of subsidy rather than appearing supine in the face of state philistinism. There will always, I suppose, be an element of compromise when it comes to theatre. Wagner, however much he railed against prevailing considerations, had to compromise too. Nevertheless, I do wonder, if the conditions were so unsatisfactory as to prevent full realisation of your ideas, whether you too might have protested.

Mark Berry

Anonymous said...

I think the reality has not sunk in.There was no rehearsal time.There is no management structure to protest you.I agree the revival was weak but I did not decide to revive it and made strong protestations about the problems I saw.I do take offense in your assumption that the original was an uninterpreted production.And do not presume about my ignorance on intellectual history.I gained my Ph.D under Isaiah Berlin on the very subject of German Romanticism.A thirty year old revival has to be seen as that.Thirty years old and given throw on conditionss with a bizarre cast and no leeway.
I am not defending the undefendable but why assume something about me and the original which you have actually not put in the proper context of the history wagner staging.Human reality,social context,the myth behind the myth was a a new and complex approach athe time when the German stge was enthralled by the bland symbolism of Wieland's staginbs.
The judgement of this production is just your view and I do not aim to make a point one way or the other.But you do not have to assume that I am a bogus regiiesseur and that I had any possibilty to even pull my own ideas together.You should be aware that the opera house is not this wise and sophisticated institution.It is without money and its infra structure is seriously breaking down when it comes to revivals.I never wanted this production revived but tried my best to create a coherent event for the music to be heard....Elijah Moshinsky

Anonymous said...

Have you studied Totem and taboo?It will take a long discussion.But basically a taboo is aprohibited action,for performing which a strong inclination exists already in the subconscious.A taboo is enforced in early societies on the forbidden.What can the dangerous attribute be..it is the wish to trangress the taboo.The essential taboo in wstern society.Elsa is a accused of brother murder.When first spoken to by Lohengrin she is obviously...though the text ambivalent and formal.He has to repeat the interdiction.
The the objects on stage are totems and signals of a non gothic atavistic society.The king cannot come in touch with contamination....strange.He has to be protected by a holy circle of purity.H speaks through a third party the herald.
Taboo is contagious and once one has transgressed an interdiction of taboo is imposed on the contaminated party.
That is the shame felt by Teleramund.Not just a court judgement..the herald enforces this taboo by his cexpulsion.The nature of the religion portrayed is not Christianity against Paganism but Fetishism against myth.It is all there just listen to the text and make sense of it.The ensemble when Elsa has to reassure Lohengrin about her freedom of doubt is about ambivalence...no state of mind is settled...it is all there in the action and the text.But you have to unpick the Wagnerian riddle not some self conscious lecturer producer.Why did Gottfried kiss Elsa sexuallY? It is all there.You just couldn't see it because you have a Germanic idea of interpratitive theatre.I believe the characters should act out of free will not to demonstrate a theory.Germans are no good on free will.
Do not not preume..listen to the words,their ambivalence..it was all there in the vocal shading....Elijah

Wagneropera.net said...

Elijah: "A thirty year old revival has to be seen as that." Can productions made more than 30 years ago be anything else than a museum piece? You can't expect people to find such a production good or interesting music theatre after so many years. What was interesting in 1977 may not be so now. I think MB's criticism hits ROH just as much as you. Kinder, schafft neues. The problems during the rehearsals may indicate that revivals of so old productions should not happen.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally....I have wanted them to scrap it for years...but I think you still do not nderstand the systemic failure inside the house.Resources are taken from all revivals and put int the new.The reult practically will always be weak.The public should know this.I also objected to the assumption that I iahd always created an empty show.

Anonymous said...

I think that Mark is ungenerous both to the singers and the production. I liked it very much, as did Rupert Christiansen and Edward Seckerson, with so far only Barry Millington expressing dislike, in a characteristically petty little piece in which he spent 6 paragraphs trashing the production and then dismissed the singers with phrases such as 'decently taken.' It truly, truly amazes me that the Royal Opera House provides TWO £205 seats for such miserable writing - anyone brought in off the street could do better.

Anonymous said...

Elijah, you should not be too troubled by what Mark wrote. I was with many people who had never seen the production before, and they thought it was wonderful. I saw it in 1977 and 2003, and it has not paled on me, despite your own concerns about lack of time and resources.

You should definitely take a look at the review which will soon appear on 'Opera Critic' - the writer there is just as much an expert on singing and production as any other critic, and you will certainly be happy with what she wrote.

Anonymous said...

Just a correction to my last, I meant of course 'Opera Today' not 'Opera Critic' which is a site which collates reviews.

Mark Berry said...

'Germans are no good on free will.' I am sure there is a whole thesis to be written there; indeed, I suspect there are several. One might say that the dialectic between freedom and determinism is characteristic of all German intellectual history since Kant and of course Wagner talks a fascinating place in this history. There does, however, seem to me a very strong fatalism (determinism?) running throughout Wagner's oeuvre, which helps to explain why Wotan's rejection of Erda (Fate) in 'Siegfried' is of such momentous import, the peripeteia of the 'Ring', and why the mystery of grace is needed to propel the 'action' of 'Parsifal'.

I think that Elijah Moshinsky makes some very interesting points. (Before saying anything else, I should like to reassure him and anyone else that I have neither stated nor implied any ignorance on his part; my remarks were clearly confined to what we saw on stage.)

I suspect that he is right to portray me as having a Germanic view of things; perhaps this is not so eccentric a starting-point when we are dealing with Richard Wagner, but never mind. I should hope that I can at least remain open to other approaches and I think that a cursory glance at other reviews I have written might suggest that I am. This is not to say that I do not get things wrong or that my impressions should not be questioned. But what Mr Moshinsky says here was not always suggested - at least to me - by what we saw on stage.

I have indeed read the Freud work to which he refers, though quite some time ago and I could not claim in any sense to be an expert or even especially informed upon such matters. What I might ask is whether such a standpoint really does justice to so multi-faceted a work as 'Lohengrin'. One might retort that no single production or performance can do so - and I suspect that that is right. Herheim came pretty close though. What I missed, even when reading what is said about how a better prepared version of the production would have looked, was a sense of the political. I do not see this is an optional extra in this work but others might disagree.

We clearly differ when it comes to Wieland Wagner too - which might be seen slightly to contradict what I have just said, but exceptions are never a bad thing. Granted, I have only been able to learn of Wieland's work at second-hand, but I think there is considerably more to him than 'bland symbolism'. Attic theatre, albeit in an extremely idealised and idealist variety, surely stands behind almost every aspect of Wagner's theatrical vision and one might say a see something of a consonance here in his grandson's productions. The depoliticisation, insofar as this is what it is, creates its own problems, I admit. Joachim Herz, Patrice Chéreau, et al., were clearly needed.

Clearly there have been differences between director and cast if he can describe the latter as 'bizarre'. That seems to me a rather harsher criticism than any I have voiced. I thought that my appraisal of the singers was generally rather positive, although one writer thinks me ungenerous.

I am sorry that I cannot refer to the other contributors by name or even soubriquet: things becomes a little difficult when everyone remains 'anonymous'. For that reason, might I encourage writers to give a name, if only a false one. We all know what happens when Elsa becomes too curious about Lohengrin's...

Anonymous said...

This discusion is getting interesting.Tommorrow shsl we discuss the young Hegelians and their creation of historicism and the other romantics who sought a dark force in constant movement behind the material worldwhich wagner virtually picked up as the basis of his never ending irresolution of harmony.My points on intermezzo are a repition of what I have made here.I want you to know that it is not intellectual inability which makes staging these revivals impossible but a profound inability to have any sensible rehearsal conditions with a cast that has been chosen carefully for exposition of the drama.
Unless you are aware of this lack you will misunderstand why productions are misdirected.I do not question at all your assessment of the performance at all.
I want the critic to be aware of the need to have a proper set up to direct in can a regie emerge.

When you talk about the political dimension in Lohengrin I had not even begun to add that to the freudian drama in the inner world.

Do the characters behave from free will,choice,reason or are they in a web of conflicting impulses who act out of necessity.The German philosophical tradition naturally turns against the humane and enlightened position ofthe materialist philosophers towards the truth that man cannot act reasonably or rationally.The romantics were anti enlightment.If you consider this to be a viable truth you will not see the moral denials of wagner for what they are.And when we talk about politics in Wagner are we talking about the exercise of power and the invention of the racial myth?We certainly do not find the humanistic patria of verdi...Elijah

Anonymous said...

Seems to be a lot of pretentious talk here.

It's a romantic fairy story by the way.

I love the music but never seen the opera live so I'm looking forward to Sunday.

As far as I can see googling the reviews are much more good than bad.

Who cares if the production is 30 years old, the opera is 150 years old than doesn't make it dated.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked by seeing the director post here and apparently on other site such negative comments about the enterprise. of course we have no proof that it really is Elijah Moshinsky posting.

If it is he sounds almost bitter, and even against one of the singers. Is it wise to do this in public.

As I haven't ever seen the 1977 production it doesn't matter a jot to me that it is old, and I'm sure most ordinary punters feel the same, and in fact the reaction seems generally favourable.

I'm a little uneasy about a huge Lohengrin ... but if he sings well. My favourite is Peter Hofmann (can see on youtube, along with Paul Frey, and Domingo ... the latter I'm not so keen on).

Anyway cheer up Elijah and good luck to you and rest in the remaining performances.

Owen (as in message above)

Anonymous said...

In 1977 I was a member of the SWET(Society of West End Theatres) Awards, Opera Panel;we gave Lohengrin the award for Production of the Year in Opera. Bernard Haitinck was in the pit with Rene Kollo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the goodies and Donald McIntyre and Eva Randova the baddies. Other nominations were La fancuilla del West (ROH), Luisa Miller (ROH) and The Seven Deadly Sins (ENO). For its day this new production was innovative and most effective. I attended this revival on 11 May and was as affected as I was on its first night. I was also present on 8 April 1963 at the first performance of Josef Gielen's new production conducted by Otto Klemperer with Sandor Konja and Regine Crespin (goodies) and John Shaw and Rita Gorr (baddies). JC.

lavretsky said...

I,amongst others,have worked with Mr.Moshinsky.

His comments about the conditions at the Royal Opera are not new. When he created his original productions he used the same arguments.He always complained about the management,the rehearsal schedule,the singers,the conductor and,at least,one of the creative team which he had personally assembled.

However,that Mr.Moshinsky could spell.

Or,at least,we thought he could.

Nicholas said...

On 28 April 2009 at 13.44 Mr.Moshinsky said:

"I gained my Ph.D under Isaiah Berlin on the very subject of German Romanticism."

From the Guardian 16 November 1977:

"...he came to Oxford in 1970 to prepare a doctoral thesis (still not completed) on the political thought of Alexander Herzen from 1855 to 1870.Herzen was editor of the first Russian emigre newspaper and Moshinsky,who speaks Russian,was supervised by Sir Isaiah Berlin."

Anonymous said...

I knew Elijah quite well recentlty as were both studying for post graduate qualification in medicine.The one thing we kew about him was that he was computer hopeless.Wrote his work by had and didn't know how to open attachments.I can'ts imagine him spending time on a blog.

Doesn,t feel right.

He is way at the moment next time I see him I will ask.

Ienjoyed the production and found it quite imaginative and paradoxical that explained wagner clearly to me