Wednesday 17 February 2010

Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper, 13 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

King Henry the Fowler – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Lohengrin – Ben Heppner
Elsa – Ricarda Merbeth
Friedrich von Telramund – Eike Wilm Schulte
Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
King’s Herald – Markus Brück
Brabantian Nobles – Gregory Warren, Thomas Blondelle, Nathen De’shon Myers, Ben Wager
Bridesmaids – Rosemarie Arzt, Constance Gärtner, Brigitte Höcht, Antje Obenaus, Gabriele Goebbels, Christa Werron, Brigitte Bergmann, Martina Metzler

Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (designs)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Michael Schønwandt (conductor)

The late Götz Friedrich’s 1990 production of Lohengrin is by now quite venerable, but on this showing, it could have a few years in it yet. It certainly compared favourably with both the previous instalment from the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner-Wochen, Kirsten Harms’s Tannhäuser, and with Covent Garden’s recent Lohengrin exhumation. In a repertoire production such as this, one is unlikely to experience the theatrical thrills and challenges experienced in recent offerings from Stefan Herheim (truly outstanding, across the city at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) or Peter Konwitschny (Leipzig). Nevertheless, one has a relatively straightforward, yet coherent telling of the story, attentive to the music as well as the words, and possessed of a clear sense of what works in the theatre. The sets and other designs perhaps veer towards the old-fashioned – fashions change so quickly – but there is no fetishisation, whether of costumes or stage directions. I was puzzled to hear some members of the audience complain of the lack of a swan; it was perfectly clear to me – and rather on the large side too. It would be better to retain Friedrich’s production for a while longer than to err by rushing into replacing it.

The emphasis, then, tended to fall upon the musical side of the performance – which, as a rule of thumb, is not so bad an idea. Michael Schønwandt conducted well, with a clear sense of musico-dramatic structure, and a fine command of the orchestra. As in Tannhäuser, the golden, almost Viennese glow of the strings impressed, whilst the brass packed quite a punch, especially when it came to the thrilling surround sound effect of the third act fanfares. There were occasions, especially during the first act, when relatively slow tempi, unobjectionable in themselves, could not quite be sustained with the requisite sense of line. (Semyon Bychkov at Covent Garden last year was exemplary, and probably slower, in this respect; but sage advice might have been not to try that at home.) On the whole, however, there was little with which to quibble, and much to savour. The chorus once again proved a major asset, especially as the performance went on. Occasional discrepancies between pit and stage were swiftly resolved.

What of the soloists? Let me get the major, if not unanticipated, disappointment out of the way. Ben Heppner has clearly been experiencing difficulties for some time. The first time I recall hearing him was on Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Munich recording of Die Meistersinger, which revealed a Heldentenor of considerable accomplishment: not the most thrilling in operatic history, perhaps, but with great sustaining power and, that rare thing in this repertoire, someone who could be depended upon to sing the part accurately and securely. Some time later, a Peter Grimes for the Royal Opera was all over the place intonationally. His recent Tristan (Covent Garden again) showed worrying signs of disrepair, and seems to have deteriorated as the production’s run proceeded. (I was fortunate to hear Lars Cleveman on my second visit.) I was nonetheless surprised by the weakness of his Lohengrin. It offered symmetry, in that his closing ‘Mein Lieber Schwan’ was just as wildly out of tune as its first act counterpart. But even when making the notes, he was too often unable to project his voice, at times resorting to crooning. It sounded to me as though he really ought to have withdrawn. The house might not have been able at such notice to secure the services of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Klaus Florian Vogt (the latter was in any case to sing Meistersinger the following evening), but there are other, less celebrated tenors who might have answered the call, such as Cleveman or Stefan Vinke, whose Leipzig rendition in December impressed me greatly.

There is no avoiding the fact that this left a hole at the centre of the performance. However, the other parts were much better taken, above all by Waltraud Meier, who was, astonishingly, making her house debut. Ortrud has always been one of her finest roles, the tessitura fitting her voice extremely well, and the dramatic demands bringing the best out of her on stage. She can hold an audience in the palm of her hand even when silent. So it proved here. The malevolence in Ortrud’s character – Wagner spoke with disgust of her as a ‘female politician’ – is offset by a clear sense of conviction in the justice of her cause. Moreover, there is, in Friedrich’s production, an interesting possible twist at the end; it is perhaps suggested that the new Führer, Gottfried, may have fallen under her spell. With Meier in the role, one should certainly not write off Ortrud. Ricarda Merbeth’s Elsa was certainly not in this class, though it had its moments. Whether it were the dictates of the production or her own conception, this Elsa seemed a less pure, more sexually aware character than is usually the case. I missed the pure beauty of tone of an artist such as Gundula Janowitz, but I can see that this interpretation, intonational difficulties aside, would have its followers. Try not to look too close though: the facial expressions are a trial, and bear no evident relationship to the drama. Kristinn Sigmundsson was generally a stentorian King Henry, though his vowels sometimes sounded a bit odd, in a fashion I have noticed a few times amongst Scandinavian and Icelandic singers. There were moments during the first act when I wondered whether Eike Wilm Schulte’s Telramund would falter. It is a difficult role to bring off: to portray insecurity, leavened by Ortrud’s Lady Macbeth-like determination, without simply seeming like a weak singer. Schulte, however, presented an eminently credible portrayal, commendably attentive to music and text. I find it difficult at the best of times not to sympathise with this pair; on the present occasion, there was no contest. Perhaps, though, that bias has been present in the music all along.