Richard Wagner believed the key to any legend was contrasting the supernatural with human nature, and showing how the combination had no chance of enduring. In Lohengrin, the title’s character’s insistence on unconditional love and trust collide with the conditional expectations of the real world. The challenge is capturing the tale’s somber majesty without losing the dramatic tension.
Two new releases each demonstrate how this can be accomplished with a minimum of stage business. Placido Domingo, Cheryl Studer and an inspired Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Claudio Abbado breathe life into a dull, dimly lit 1990 production on an Arthaus Musik DVD that could have been lifted out of an old Victor Book of the Opera. And a Marek Janowski concert performance on CD, the latest in the conductor’s survey of Wagner operas with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra for PentaTone, distills a natural story book quality from the tale by limiting the interplay of the characters and focusing exclusively on the music.
Lohengrin is a prelude to Wagner’s mature phase, with leitmotifs and musical keys assigned to characters and situations and a through-composed score that Franz Liszt, who conducted the 1850 premiere in Weimar, said marked the end of the “old world of opera.” Though enthusiasm was at first limited to the musical intelligentsia, the stirring choruses and back story of Germans defending their Empire’s honor again invaders soon enough made Lohengrin a popular vessel for nationalistic pride during Germany’s unification.
The Vienna production by Wolfgang Weber unfortunately has a mail-it-in quality that ignores obvious dramatic threads such as the plot’s conflict between Christianity and paganism. Instead, we’re treated to a series of static tableaus so dark that some ensemble shots on the video directed by Brian Large seem blurry. Characters move tentatively, sapping scenes like the Act 2 confrontation between Ortrud and Elsa in front of the cathedral of much spontaneity or tension. Lohengrin’s Act 1 fight scene with Telramund is lame, if mercifully brief.
It’s up to the singers to make the evening, and they pretty much all deliver. In the title role, Domingo is handsome and dignified, with a Latinate sound that seems appropriate for a character whose otherworldly purity set him apart from pretty much everyone else on stage. The tenor also sounds a bit more convincing than he did in the recording made with Sir Georg Solti for Decca several years before this performance; the Grail narrative “In fernem Land” unspools with nobility and unwavering determination, conjuring visions of a magical distant land that seems a world apart from the drab stage setting.
Studer delivers a polished vocal performance as Elsa, vulnerable in the pivotal face-off with Ortrud and full of robust lyricism in the Act 3 bridal chamber scene with Lohengrin. Though her facial expressions and acting range are somewhat limited, you still get a strong sense of mounting anxiety and genuine heartbreak.
Hartmut Welker is a lyrical and intense Telramund, mining his character’s ambitions and insecurities without having to shout. Dunja Vekzovic is perhaps the weakest link in the cast as Ortrud, failing to capture the temptress’ unhinged state or menacing qualities until the very end of the opera, when she finally lets go and exults over Elsa’s betrayal of Lohengrin. Robert Lloyd is a commanding King Henry.
Abbado’s keen attention to tonal colors makes one appreciate the way Wagner made different sections of the orchestra portray the characters, or symbols such as the Grail. The woodwinds voice Elsa’s music with an aching quality reminiscent of the Vienna Philharmonic in Rudolf Kempe’s landmark EMI recording. Abbado favors relatively brisk tempi in the Act 1 and 3 preludes and keeps the sometimes problematic middle act from slipping into tedium. The only quibble is that his focus on drawing out the score’s ardent lyricism comes at the expense of some of its drama and bite.
Janowski, who has retreated from staged performances in response to the excesses of the Regie movement, probably would have felt quite comfortable with the Vienna production. His concert Lohengrin, recorded in November 2011, proceeds at a business-like clip, free of interpretive shortcomings or, for that matter, much insight. There’s a certain sense of genug, as if a clean, transparent reading will somehow compensate for decades of ill-considered liberties other artists have visited on the composer’s material.
I find the approach better-suited for this kind of early Wagner than for the elusive mysticism of a Parsifal; there’s an unforced “once upon a time” quality to this damsel-in-distress tale and a keen sense of the underlying pulse that allows the drama to unfold naturally, despite the numerous changes in tempi and instrumental voicings.
Klaus Florian Vogt’s tenor at first sounds almost too light and lyrical for the title role but rings out assertively in the Act 1 confrontation with Telramund and again, in the scene before the cathedral. Compared to Domingo’s more all-purpose Romantic sound, Vogt’s voice has a crystalline quality that seems to epitomize the character’s uprightness and honor, with effortless high notes, tender mezza voce and scrupulous diction.
His Elsa, Annette Dasch, has a lovely voice that only sounded a bit taxed toward the end of the 3 hour 20 minute performance. The concert format curiously underscores the lack of magnetism between Elsa and Lohengrin: While she’s certainly grateful for being rescued, one is more aware of how hard it is for the two characters to really relate when you’re not watching them try on stage. The lack of visuals also helps you suspend belief at Elsa’s implausible death-by-grief at the opera’s conclusion – a plot element even Wagner conceded was dramatically problematic.
Among the rest of the cast, Susanne Resmark’s vibrato-laden Ortrud sounds overtaxed at key moments, such as Act 2’s “Entweihte Götter.” Gerd Grochowski is a bit foursquare as Telramund, with a middleweight voice that doesn’t have enough impact to punch through the orchestral accompaniment. Gunther Groissböck was excellent as King Henry.
The biggest stars of the evening, however, were the members of the Berlin Radio Chorus, so crisp and full of rapt wonder during Lohengrin’s Act 1 entrance and solemn and stirring during the Act 2 procession “Gesegnet soll sie schreiten.” In an opera with such prominent choral parts, their delicate touches and vivid characterization go a long way toward bridging magical and mortal realms.