WAGNER Lohengrin (Thielemann)
German interpreters have long dreamt of performing Wagner with star singers from the supposedly ‘opposite’ Italian or French vocal cultures, Lohengrin being a favourite subject for experiment due to the supposed bel canto nature of its leading roles. Wieland Wagner wanted Mario del Monaco in the title-role and Maria Callas as Ortrud; Christian Thielemann (in what may have been a trial for Bayreuth that apparently won’t happen now) secured Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczaa to debut as the not-quite lovers for a Dresden run in May 2016.
As Thielemann outside Bayreuth appears to prefer easy-going non-interventionist productions from a safe past, this ‘new’ release is really a non-starter as a competitive Lohengrin on DVD (go rather to the Bayreuth or Munich options). Christine Mielitz’s 1983 (!) production has been worked over by a ‘director of performance’. As filmed here there is but one exciting moment, when the two leading ladies clash in Act 2 Nibelungenlied-style (as Wagner intended from his sources) over the crown of Brabant. Otherwise we’re watching three acts of dutifully efficient naturalistic plodding around in 19th-centuried-up faux medieval costumes: the not-so-happy couple, going to get married, resemble pictures of King Ludwig II in Neuschwanstein. The set remains a kind of indoor courtyard (plus big bed for Act 3 scene 1) that looks like it has strayed in from an Act 1 Meistersinger.
The cast are good to look at on camera and are no slouches as actors – but the main interest of the release remains musical. How do the imported stars do? Netrebko brings a sensuality and an outraged awareness of how this woman is exploited not that common in Elsas, and the role lies well for her vocally at the moment. Confident in the more florid writing, she also has the weight to doubt Lohengrin with some power in their Act 3 duet. Beczaa also sounds here to have an ideal weight of voice and a cunning balance between dreamy lyrical and heroic. Both comfortably maintain a dramatic presence in the rather dull setting.
They are excellently supported (if that doesn’t sound patronising) by Zeppenfeld’s King – a master of variety now as Wagner’s authority figures – Herlitzius’s cold Ortrud and the Telramund of Konieczny (especially convincing in the denunciations of Act 1) whom she clearly bullies. Thielemann has not yet rethought his earlier Wagner as he has recently his Walküre and Tristan, and still relies on a generalised large orchestral sound without a suggestion of what the earlier palettes of Beethoven and Weber might bring to these pre-1850 scores. Nonetheless, there’s a stylish and intelligent range of tempos and he does not allow his fine orchestra to overdo the weight of the plentiful brass music. He also gives us a rare chance to hear all the music in Act 2 (and there’s a lot of it!) between the Ortrud/Elsa duet and the entry into the Minster.
A CD might have served this project better but, if you can hear through a little visual frustration, the performance is well worth attention for conductor and cast.