Mysterious Stranger: Lohengrin from the Semperoper Dresden

Wagner – Lohengrin

Heinrich der Vogler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – Piotr Beczała
Elsa von Brabant – Anna Netrebko
Friedrich von Telramund – Tomasz Konieczny
Ortrud – Evelyn Herlitzius
Der Heerufer des Königs – Derek Welton
Vier brabantische Edle – Tom Martinsen, Simeon Esper, Matthias Henneberg, Tilmann Rönnebeck
Vier Edelknaben – Jana Hohlfeld, Monika Harnisch, Annett Eckert, Furuta Masako

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden – Extrachor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann.
Stage director – Christiane Mielitz.  Video director – Tiziano Mancini.

Semperoper, Dresden, Germany.  May 2016.  Streamed via Semperoper.de

This revival of Christiane Mielitz’s 1983 staging of Lohengrin was a hot ticket back in 2016.  One of the most publicized sopranos of today, Anna Netrebko, making a rare foray into the German rep to make a role debut as Elsa; alongside the noble tenor of Piotr Beczała, similarly making his debut in the title role.  Combined with the glorious house forces and a Telramund, Ortrud and Heinrich that would be hard to match today, the expectations were undoubtedly stratospheric.

Mielitz’s staging now seems like something from a distant age.  It’s certainly colourful, with medieval chic meets Prussian military costumes for the extensive forces, and the chorus and extras marched on and off holding imposing banners.  There are hints of the tension between the pagan and Christian in the imposing ceremonies of Act 2.  At the same time, it all feels somewhat clichéd, with Elsa making her entry in a white dress, supposedly symbolizing innocence, while Ortrud, with her red velvet costume and flaming red hair, seemed to point to hackneyed visions of witchcraft.  Given Lohengrin was dressed in a red shirt, it did lead me to wonder if there was something in that.  He made his entrance on a rather imposing mechanical swan, pushed on from the rear of the stage.  Personenregie was perfunctory – some singers coped better than others. There were a lot of outstretched arms to the front, and direction of the chorus seemed to be more about traffic management than actually creating a mob of living, breathing individuals.  That said, the scene at the start of Act 2, between Tomasz Konieczny’s Telramund and Evelyn Herlizius’s Ortrud, was utterly electric, both bringing out utterly cogent and compelling characters through their use of text and sheer physical presence, perceptible even through the small screen.   Indeed, what the small screen amplifies is the sheer depth of facial expressions available to both of these great singing-actors, Herlitzius especially, in Act 1 seemingly holding the stage even with hardly anything to sing.

Photo: © Daniel Koch

Beczała’s silvery and focused tenor is well matched to Lohengrin’s music.  The tone is brighter than we often hear in this role and it works well, shimmering over the textures, the forward placement allowing the voice to carry with ease.  He’d clearly worked hard on the text, singing with an impeccable sense of phrasing.  His ‘in fernem Land’ was sung with an innate sense of poetry, shading the tone without a hint of tiredness, the voice opening up thrillingly on top.  If there was an underlying sense that Beczała was still finding his way into the role, I have no doubt that he will find even more depth to his interpretation with time.

Photo: © Daniel Koch

Anna Netrebko’s Elsa is no shrinking violet but a woman of passion and strength of will.  Her soprano is gutsy and dispatched with generous force.  Indeed, it felt at times she was auditioning for Ortrud instead.  That said, she did phrase some long, warm lines, with some elegant portamenti in places.  As the evening progressed, it sounded that there was a touch of tiredness in the tone with implications for pitch and the top didn’t quite spin ideally.  She had obviously worked hard on the text but her diction was disappointing, particularly as the stream didn’t include subtitles in German, or any other language, so it was hard at times to establish what the words actually were.  It was an interesting debut but given that Netrebko has since cancelled further performances of this role, it seems we’ll be unlikely to hear her in it again.

Photo: © Daniel Koch

Konieczny’s Teleramund was superb.  No hectoring here, instead everything was sung with rock solid tone and completely off the text.  His bass-baritone has a strikingly acidic tone, which gives his singing even more character.  His chemistry with Herlitzius’s Ortrud made for gripping viewing.  Herlitizus’s Ortrud was similarly compelling.  Again, even through the small screen, one gets an idea of the sheer power she brings to ‘Entweihte Götter’, dispatched with an almost frightening sense of determination.  Her final peroration in Act 3 was sung with thrilling abandon – and was undeniably exciting.  Georg Zeppenfeld sang with his customary eloquence and verbal acuity, while Derek Welton brought admirable firmness of tone to the Heerufer.

Photo: © Daniel Koch

The house chorus was on its customary fabulous form, singing with strength and ideal blend – no war of vibratos here.  The orchestra was also on exceptional form for Christian Thielemann, with shimmering strings, wind playing of distinction, and outstanding brass playing.  Thielemann’s tempi were weighty but never seemed to drag, drawing out a big, bold sound from the pit.  It did seem that at times the strings were recessed in the sound mix, at least as recorded – though of course in the house, the effect could well have been different, particularly in that celebrated acoustic.  Tiziano Mancini’s video direction was efficient, and managed to capture the assembled forces, even if it did feel a little too fond of cutting away to the conductor, dragging us from the stage action more often than would be preferable.

This performance would definitely make for a great souvenir for those in the house.  In Konieczny, Herlitzius and Zeppenfeld, it reveals three artists who surely are the leading interpreters of those roles of our time.  Beczała’s Lohengrin gave much to admire, singing with ardour and bright, forward tone – even if it felt that he could bring out even more with the text.  There’s no doubt that Netrebko’s Elsa will have given her many fans pleasure.  With the superlative Dresden forces and a staging that allows the action to unfold with efficient traffic management, this makes for an agreeable way to pass an afternoon.

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One comment

  1. I have to admit I find your criticms of Netrebko odd in relation of Herltizius. For a native speaker, Herltizius hardly speaks the text with any great clarity and her pitch and intonation are much further off than Netrebko’s. I guess it’s a different role but you really are willing to just ignore who pretty objective issues.

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