There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup. Hence the appeal of recording a concert performance. This CD set was edited from two such performances in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw (literally: “concert building”) on December 18 and 20, 2015. The performance was semi-staged, i.e., done without costumes and sets. Some evocative lighting was employed. Characters made entrances and exits through various doors, and characters and (I gather) brass players appeared on balconies.
Le but principal de cet article et de louer jusqu’au cieux une représentation tout à fait remarquable—inoubliable, dirais-je—du premier oeuvre canonique de Wagner, mais c’est bien une mise-en-scène contemporaine—une mise-en-scène laquelle rend justice aussi bien à la problématique sociale de 1840 qu’a celle de nos jours—surtout à propos de la rôle des femmes dans la famille, le mariage, les moeurs bourgeois, et l’argent. Dans ce contexte le problème qui me frappe d’abord est celui de la mort de Senta, parce qu’il semble que les metteurs en scène de nos jours se sentent fort mal à leur aise avec sa mort telle que Wagner l’avait conçue, où elle se jette dans les flots tourbillants nordiques. S’agit-il de la vraisemblance, du goût, ou bien des frais toujours montants de l’assurance qui découragent la saute d’une soprano importante même d’une distance de deux mètres? Voyons.
Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”
Ritual is everywhere in Wagner’s operas and music dramas. He even has his way of transforming crucial events in his stories into quasi-rituals through symbolism. Ritual is even more pervasive in his final work, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, which is in itself a ritual. The highly ritualized routines of the Grail knights connect their lives and the events of the drama with the continuum of the Grail’s history, back to the Last Supper. Their actions are highly deliberate, replete with the significance of faith and tradition. This creates a quasi-monastic environment in which life unfolds slowly, largely ceremonially, on the structure of a time-honored schedule, in which history and precedent are always present. The narrative unfolds with notable simplicity in terms of what occurs on stage, while beneath it, the backstory related in monologues seethes with incident, conflict, and misfortune. In addition to this dramatic foreground purified of trivialities, there is the pure transparency of Wagner’s score, consisting of simple thematic material set with surpassing clarity, delicacy, and harmonic subtlety. In this way Parsifal lives up to what we have been conditioned to expect from the late work of a great artist, and this is what we see and hear on the stage, if Wagner’s stage directions are observed.
I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.
When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?
Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.
The Chicago Lyric Opera’s Lohengrin is a testament to the major problem of many American opera productions today. On the one hand, conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ formidable interpretation rivalled the greatest in Wagnerian history, but on the other hand, director Elijah Moshinsky’s lackluster staging rivalled your average high-school production. The irony of hearing some of the world’s greatest Wagnerian voices while seeing some of its most awkward blocking is nothing new to regular attendees of the American Wagner scene. That said, the Lyric might have done well to present the evening in concert form.
This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.