Opening knight

The 1965 season was a time of big changes at the Vienna State Opera. Herbert von Karajan had stormed off after a series of internal disputes, vowing never to return. Wieland Wagner arrived on the Ringstrasse bringing the spare, symbolist approach to his grandfather’s works that had taken hold in Bayreuth. And Karl Böhm was lured out his redoubt at the Met with promises of big projects.  

The circumstances aligned to produce a memorable Lohengrin, with Jess Thomas, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, Claire Watson and Martti Talvela under Böhm’s direction that unfolded in a brilliant blue stage setting dominated by medieval stained glass and a static chorus organized in groups. It would be be one of Wagner’s last productions before he succumbed to lung cancer.

A live recording from the run, now available on Orfeo, captures the frisson generated by major artists in or near their primes and the unforced edginess Böhm drew from the excellent chorus and orchestra. Only the mono sound and some unfortunate cuts to the second and third act choruses might keep it from vying for a top spot on collectors’ shelves.

As with Parsifal, any successful Lohengrin requires balancing somber majesty with dramatic tension. The groundbreaking leitmotives, harmonic transitions and use of orchestral passages to convey characters’ thoughts demonstrate where Wagner was headed with his later works. Yet this opera’s Italianate lyricism points backward in time, forming a direct musical connection to bel canto and putting a premium on balance and clarity.

The prominence of this performance becomes apparent at Lohengrin’s Act 1 entrance, when the chorus delivers a rousing and kaleidoscopic account of its difficult multipart music, managing to sound awestruck in loud and whispered passages while Böhm provides a brisk accompaniment. The dark-sounding men’s voices, in particular, lend a Teutonic gravity to this and later scenes, when the chorus pushes the plot forward.

Thomas’ heroic account of the title role will be familiar to anyone who’s heard him the classic EMI release under Rudolf Kempe. Here, he sounds a bit more labored in spots but also seems to convey more of his character’s elusive and mysterious persona. The expressive soft attack on “Heil dir, Elsa!” at the conclusion of Act 2 is a model of taste and control while “In fernem Land” has a subtle, almost spiritual quality.

Watson, best remembered as Freia and Gutrune in Sir Georg Solti’s Ring, has an ample instrument with the thrust to soar over the ensemble in moments such as the Act 1 finale. She’s also a bit one-dimensional, playing Elsa as a frail naïf. “Einsam in truben tagen” doesn’t really plumb the reservoir of emotions, and her scenes with Thomas lack the mood and demeanor that Elisabeth Grümmer conveyed in her touchstone portrayal.

The unquestioned star of the evening is Ludwig, a malevolent Ortrud, driven by fierce ancestral pride, who sounds a degree more hectoring and hellbent live than in a recording studio. Her rich mezzo easily handles the pagan goddess’ punishing tessitura, and the attacks on the F sharps in the Act 2 outburst “Entweite Götter!” prompt the Viennese to spontaneously burst into applause, delaying the performance for about a minute before Bohm cues the orchestra to continue. Behind the obvious power is a palpable calm and focus that makes Ortrud even scarier in such moments as when she cajoles Elsa to readmit her to the court following “Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen.”

Ludwig’s then-husband Berry is every bit her equal as Telramund—a surprise to anyone who may have viewed him as an anodyne light baritone better suited to Mozart and lieder. He’s convincingly flesh-and-blood in the Act 2 dialogues with Ludwig, alternately testy, haughty and spiteful while maintaining a clear, ringing tone through the irregular musical phrasing. Among the rest of the cast, the young Talvela uses his huge and warm voice to great effect as King Henry while Eberhard Wächter is a somewhat blustery herald.

Böhm never recorded Lohengrin commercially, a shame considering the pomp, vigor and tension he brings out in this performance. Though he was famous for brisk tempi, this account doesn’t sound as fleet as his Tristan, lasting 195 minutes and fitting neatly on three CDs.

While Kempe had an unerring sense of Lohengrin’s dramatic arc and Solti was wonderfully attentive to the text and musical flow, Böhm is more theatrical and direct. Frenzied orchestral passages emerge with great clarity, the pit-to-stage coordination is airtight and the singers’ diction is superb. All in all, an important historical document that fills a gap in the Wagner discography during the composer’s bicentennial.