Wagner – Lohengrin
Heinrich der Vogler – Gábor Bretz
Lohengrin – Eric Cutler
Elsa von Brabant – Ingela Brimberg
Friedrich von Telramund – Andrew Foster-Williams
Ortrud – Elena Pankratova
Der Heerufer des Königs – Werner van Mechelen
Vier brabantische Edle – Zeno Popescu, Willem van der Heyden, Kurt Gysen, Bertrand Duby
Vier Edelknaben – Raphaële Green, Isabelle Jacques, Virginie Léonard, Lisa Willems.
Chœurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Alain Altinoglu.
Stage director – Olivier Py.
De Munt – La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium. Friday, May 4th, 2018.
At the start of this evening’s Lohengrin, the stage director, Olivier Py, appeared before the public to spend a few moments outlining his approach to the work. This is something that he has taken the time to do before every performance in the run. As is usually the case in Brussels, the run was double-cast and I caught the final performance of this cast in a total run of ten. Py addressed us with a question: ‘y avait-il dans le romantisme allemand les germes du national-socalisme?’. In his brief speech, developed further in a cogently argued article in the program book, he certainly set out a most convincing thesis for Wagner’s links with the later descent of Germany into Nazism. Something that it feels so often that many would prefer not to engage with because, as Py rightly points out, ‘nous sommes tous contemporains de l’après-Auschwitz et qu’il n’est pas possible de retrouver l’innocence perdue d’avant-guerre’. As a starting point for a staging, I find it a most convincing one. It has taken me personally, a long time to come to terms with Wagner’s music. I find it impossible to listen to the closing pages of Meistersinger, for instance, without feeling the horrors of the last century ever present. And yet, ultimately, I’m not quite convinced that Py quite realizes through this Lohengrin the revisionist argument that he makes so convincingly in his essay.
Part of the reason is that, in presenting his ideas to the public before the curtain, Py in a way forces us to look for connections that may not actually be there; rather than allowing us to think for ourselves and developing our own individual narrative from his staging. Set in the ruins of World War Two, we are confronted by a devastated cityscape. Yet, there is little sense of that unspeakable trauma, of a society that has lived through horror, attempting to come to terms with it. The chorus is woefully under-directed. Made to stand in rows and sing, or marched on placed in rows and then marched off again. We get very little sense of who these people are and what they have been through – little sense of whether they are a collective mob or a group of individuals. Py also drew out Elsa’s search for an ‘Erlöser’. He brought out how her blind determination would ultimately sacrifice her happiness, illustrated by her being compartmentalized in a box with figures from German civilization – while Lohengrin killed Telramund. In doing so, Py posits that it was the character of Elsa rather than the crowd who really represented the people. The result, however, was that it felt that the character of Elsa, in many ways, belonged in a different opera.
Despite these reservations, there were also some very convincing ideas. Interesting how we see Telramund and Ortrud as Nazis, his partisans wanting to continue the fight even after the war had ended. Py, along with Elena Pankratova, made Ortrud much more reasonable than one might be used to. Her ‘entweihte Götter’ was more supplication than feral anger. Similarly, her taunting of Elsa in Act 2, was made to seem absolutely logical and convincing – and made Elsa seem irrational. Interesting also, how in the closing tableau, we see Ortrud living on – evil surviving among us, even after the unspeakable horror that was caused. That horror also included the killing of a child so that in the closing pages, rather than the empty triumphalism that comes with the resolution, we are left with a sense that nothing can ever be the same again.
Musically, things were also somewhat mixed. Ingela Brimberg sang Elsa with a silky soprano, admirably even in emission. The sound is full and rounded. The voice, as produced, seems to be made artificially wider with the result that intonation was troublesome, the core often sitting around the note rather than on it. She sang with dignity and threw herself into the production’s vision for the character. It’s an attractive sound without doubt. Andrew Foster-Williams sang Telramund with an admirable cleanness of line and impeccable diction. Unfortunately, his compact, narrow baritone sounded particularly stressed by the high-lying declamatory writing. The tone becoming grainy and dry with the result that I feared he wouldn’t last the course. Foster-Williams is a fine singer who has given me several enjoyable evenings in the past but Telramund is an exceptionally demanding assignment and I regret that tonight didn’t quite show him at his best.
Things were somewhat more positive in the remainder of the cast. Werner van Mechelen gave us a Heerrufer of still firm tone and immaculate diction. Gábor Bretz sang Heinrich with his familiar warm, inky bass bringing genuine handsomeness of sound to a role so often populated by the superannuated. The smaller roles were well taken.
Pankratova was a formidable Ortrud. The voice is voluptuous with a firm bottom – although the register break down there required some careful negotiation. The top opens up magnificently and in her final rages, she had room to spare where so many before her have run out of gas. She made Ortrud a much more complex and interesting character than one often sees, aided by the fact that she had clearly worked very hard on the text.
Eric Cutler’s Lohengrin is a role debut for this run and he gave us something very special indeed. The voice sits quite high which meant that he was able to portray the romantic hero through seductive and honeyed tones in Act 1. Not afraid to sing quietly, he gave us a lieder singer’s attention to the text, fully exploiting the beauty of his tenor. The highlight of the evening was his ‘in fernen Land’. Here Cutler used a seemingly infinite palette of vocal colour, shading the voice and illustrating the text, from the most intimate pianissimo to ringing high notes. His shimmering tone matched perfectly the ravishing sound produced by the house strings, encouraged by Alain Altinoglu to play exceptionally quietly. There was an intimacy to his delivery that was utterly captivating and brought his character to life.
The orchestra had a good night on the whole, although it didn’t start very promisingly with some very raw string intonation in the opening pages. This settled quickly, however, and the brass in particular gave us some phenomenal playing. Indeed, the magnificent noise made by the brass bands from the stage-side boxes and the massed chorus on stage was splendid. The chorus was on good form, singing with warmth and generosity although the tenors did sound stretched in places. Altinoglu gave us a reading that flowed organically. Tempi felt ideally paced even if the Lohengrin-Elsa scene in Act 3 seemed to drop in tension. Otherwise, the beauty of the gossamer strings and the massiveness of the bigger moments meant that the entire range of the score registered fully.
Py’s Lohengrin is undeniably a thoughtful and audacious piece of theatre. It is ambitious in its argument even if ultimately, I didn’t leave completely convinced. In many respects, Py’s exposition of his ideas at the start actually proved counter-productive as it meant one was constantly searching for connections and missed out, as a result, on the fascinating narrative developed by the cast. Musically, there was much that was good and, in Pankratova and Cutler, we were given something really quite exceptional. This was an evening in the theatre that provoked thought and discussion in which the musical rewards were multiple. Certainly well worth seeing.
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