The Gramophone Choice
Jess Thomas (ten) Lohengrin Elisabeth Grümmer (sop) Elsa Christa Ludwig (mez) Ortrud Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar) Telramund Gottlob Frick (bass) King Henry Otto Wiener (bass) Herald Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Rudolf Kempe
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 567415-2 (3h 37' · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1963-64. Buy from Amazon
EMI’s sound may have less presence and a narrower perspective than other versions but neither the ‘studio’ ambience – the recording was made in the Theater an der Wien – nor the occasionally excessive prominence of the voices prevents Kempe’s reading from projecting a strongly theatrical quality. However, it’s the all-round excellence of the cast, plus the bonus of an uncut Act 3, which makes this the leading mid-price recommendation.
Jess Thomas combines ardour and anguish as well as any, and with Fischer-Dieskau a formidable (but never over-emphatic) antagonist and Gottlob Frick a majestic King Henry, the drama of the opera’s central conflict remains supremely immediate and powerful. As Elsa and Ortrud, Elisabeth Grümmer and Christa Ludwig are ideal opposites, the former radiant yet quite without the simpering overtones that afflict some Elsas, the latter as potent in seductive insinuation as in demonic ferocity. Not even Ludwig can surpass the visceral intensity of Astrid Varnay in the 1953 Bayreuth set under Keilberth, and Keilberth’s Telramund and Elsa (Hermann Uhde and Eleanor Steber) are also outstanding: yet Wolfgang Windgassen’s Lohengrin isn’t as distinguished, nor as distinctive, as Jess Thomas’s here. Even more importantly, Keilberth’s reading lacks the visionary quality that Kempe finds in the score. Ultimately, it’s the power of that vision which raises this performance above its rivals.
Johan Botha (ten) Lohengrin Adrianne Pieczonka (sop) Elsa Petra Lang (mez) Ortrud Falk Struckmann (bar) Telramund Kwangchul Youn (bass) King Henry Eike Wilm Schulte (bar) Herald North German Radio Chorus; Prague Chamber Choir; West German Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Semyon Bychkov
Profil PH09004 (3h 34’ · DDD/DSD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
As a studio recording, this new Profil release can claim a degree of rarity value. Also rare is its inclusion of a segment of Lohengrin’s ‘In fernem Land’ monologue which Wagner cut at the time of the premiere, though this has previously appeared in two of the best earlier recordings (from Leinsdorf and Barenboim).
The studio atmosphere means that there are no obvious theatrical effects: no thumps and bumps during fights, for example. But Semyon Bychkov’s impassioned conducting ensures that there’s no serious loss of theatricality; and even in ordinary stereo the big ensembles sound immensely imposing (the end of Act 2 overwhelming), which compensates to a degree for a wide dynamic range that makes it difficult to set a single suitable volume level throughout.
It can be argued that Wagner never settled on a definitive version of Act 3. He was surely right to cut the anticlimactic episode after Lohengrin reveals his and his father’s names; but despite its inclusion here, Profil has failed to include the text in a libretto whose usefulness is already compromised by not having German, French and English in parallel, as well as by a fusty English translation.
Fortunately, there are many positive factors too. Bychkov’s reading is admirable, with only occasional exaggerations (including slowing up towards the end of the Act 1 Prayer). Although none of the cast surpasses the work’s best exponents elsewhere, all are well worth hearing. Johan Botha is ardent and mellifluous, lacking only that finely spun, silvery thread of tone that distinguished Jess Thomas in the role; nor does Petra Lang – for all her sensitivity to the text – quite set the stage ablaze as Astrid Varnay did. Adrianne Pieczonka is occasionally shrill in more strenuous passages but there’s an attractive tonal brightness that brings extra weight to her Elsa.
Underpinning it all are the excellent Cologne forces, with Bychkov in the Act 1 Prelude conveying the ‘awesome sweetness’ that has to be brought to life if the drama is to work its magic. Not the best Lohengrin ever, then, but it’s good to have such a well-characterised and sumptuously recorded new version.
Jonas Kaufmann (ten) Lohengrin Anja Harteros (sop) Elsa Michaela Schuster (mez) Ortrud Wolfgang Koch (bar) Telramund Christof Fischesser (bass) King Henry Evgeny Nikitin (bass-bar) Herald Bavarian State Opera Chorus; Bavarian State Orchestra / Kent Nagano
Stage director Richard Jones
Video director Karina Fibich
Decca DVD 074 3387DH2 (3h 27’ · NTSC · 16:9 · LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0)
Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon
Lohengrin is a drama of polarities, the good and the bad. So it is in this performance of the opera, where Jonas Kaufmann’s Lohengrin is very good and Richard Jones’s production is very bad. That is reflected in the critical conflict – to recommend it or not. It seemed at first that the visual element was such a liability as to warrant rejection; then it became clear that Kaufmann deserves to be seen as well as heard, and that his merits are more important than the attendant distractions. As in Wagner, goodness prevails.
This Lohengrin becomes moving at the moment when the shadow falls across his mind, the destruction of his happiness, which he hopes yet to avert but now fears to be inevitable. Kaufmann’s humanity lies essentially in his singing, but in deportment he plays the part with a naturalness, an absence of stagey ‘attitude’, that is rare indeed. The producer gives him ‘business’ to cover the interlude between scenes in Act 3; but the realisation of loss written on his face and the sight of his sunken head all but motionless yet leaving us in no doubt that he is weeping – these are what move us. And his singing is surpassingly fine throughout. This is the Lohengrin voice of dreams: both romantic and heroic, with a gentle, well-nourished warmth, capable of a perfectly graduated diminuendo to pianissimo.
Anja Harteros has lovely moments but as the exquisitely soft tones increase in volume and the lyricism becomes more declamatory so her voice tends to loosen. As always, it is not easy to believe in the character, and her statuesque figure and wide-eyed expression set her at a further remove than usual. As Telramund, Wolfgang Koch sustains the vocal pressures without the tone spreading, and in his looming, lumbering way he presents a real character. King and Herald are acceptable and the chorus sing splendidly.
It is presumably part of the producer’s concept that the chorus is no more than a line-up of expressionless faces. But if one starts on this and the other perversities of production it might take forever. The DVD is after all to be recommended. A major contribution is no doubt made by Kent Nagano’s sympathetic conducting (much more sure-footed than on the Opus Arte DVD reviewed below) and the fine playing of his Munich orchestra. The recorded sound is clear and rich; the video production well judged.
Klaus Florian Vogt (ten) Lohengrin Solveig Kringelborn (sop) Elsa Waltraud Meier (mez) Ortrud Tom Fox (bar) Telramund Hans-Peter König (bass) King Henry Roman Trekel (bar) Herald Lyon National Opera Chorus; EuropaChorAkademie Mainz; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Kent Nagano
Stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Video director Thomas Grimm
Opus Arte DVD OA0964D; Blu-ray OABD7026D (4h 39’ · NTSC · 16:9 · 1080i · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 2006. Buy from Amazon
Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Lohengrin is a calculated distillation of both the work’s dramatic contents and its production history. The hand of his old master Wieland Wagner lies beneficially over the outer acts’ terraced ranks of Brabantine courtiers and Saxon soldiers, as it does on the chessboard movements of the principals around a central disc. (The sets here are by the noted German architect Stephan Braunfels, whose recreation of a giant Svoboda staircase for the Act 2 processions is memorable.) The (swan-less) appearance and departure of Lohengrin into a thin, central beam of light recall the imagery of Bayreuth’s recent Keith Warner/Stefanos Lazaridis staging, while the promotion of Elsa to a constantly onstage narrator/dreamer continues an idea of Götz Friedrich’s in an earlier Bayreuth production.
Yet, although Bettina Walter’s costumes are modern-ish – somewhere between Juan Carlos’s ceremonial Spain and a Hollywood Prisoner of Zenda – Lehnhoff’s direction, as always, remains narrative-based and essentially traditional. Only once, in the bridal chamber scene of Act 3, does this director allow himself a conceit, showing Lohengrin, Wagner-like, at a reversed keyboard piano, composing and playing the wedding march. It’s a strange and acute image, revealing at a stroke the hero’s narcissistic and chauvinistic self-absorption.
Lehnhoff’s accumulation of images is trenchantly delivered onstage by his two leading ladies, both wide-ranging, attention-holding actresses: Kringelborn in her vocal prime, strong, pure, never forcing; Meier in her vocal Indian summer, strong, impure, sometimes forcing, but always wholly in the service of this sexy, brainy Ortrud. Vogt, in his silver-blue zoot suit, is a charismatic enigma (hence ideal for this role), an apparently super-light voice but one with both stamina and sustaining power. The lower male voices also make their mark: Fox creates sympathy for this Macbeth without a brain; Trekel’s Herald has power and attitude; König is a subtly eponymous, weak liberal Henry. The chorus(es) sound undernourished, acting better than they keep together (in the tricky vocal helter-skelter of Lohengrin’s arrival) with the pit. It sounds like early days for Kent Nagano at maintaining pace and flow through the weighty four-in-a-bar recitative-like passages.
Thomas Grimm gets his cameras in close, leaving the singers to track reactions to solo utterances but missing some crucial interplay. Within a natural sound spectrum, some tweaking has been done to pull out solo lines in ensemble, but the emotions of Lehnhoff’s vision ring true and will give pleasure.