Finding Beauty Within: Lohengrin at the Teatro Comunale Bologna

Wagner – Lohengrin

Heinrich der Vogler – Albert Dohmen
Lohengrin – Daniel Kirch
Elsa von Brabant – Anna-Louise Cole
Friedrich von Telramund – Ólafur Siguardarson
Ortrud – Anna Maria Chiuri
Der Heerufer des Königs – Lukas Zeman
Vier brabantische Edle – Manuel Pietrattelli, Pietro Picone, Simon Schnorr, Victor Shevchenko
Vier Edelknaben – Francesca Micarelli, Maria Cristina Bellantuono, Eleonora Filipponi, Alena Sautier

Chorus of the Ukrainian National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre ‘Taras Shevchenko’, Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna / Asher Fisch.
Stage director – Luigi de Angelis.

Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy.  Saturday, November 19th, 2022.

This new production of Lohengrin at the Teatro Comunale is an anniversary of sorts, given that Wagner’s opera received its first Bolognese, and indeed Italian, performance at this very house 151 years ago this month.  As is the custom at the Comunale, the show was double cast with an Italian and international cast, under experienced Wagnerian, Asher Fisch.  Furthermore, the house was able to host singers from the Chorus of the Ukrainian National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre ‘Taras Shevchenko’, who had clearly made an exceptionally difficult journey to be here tonight – and for that, they deserve our utmost respect and admiration.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

The staging was confided to Belgian director, stage and light designer, and composer of electroacoustic music, Luigi de Angelis.  He gives us a rather austere staging, setting the action in what appears to be a 1970s military society, with Heinrich bearing a more than passing resemblance to the current King Charles.  The use of video on the rear wall of the set created some interesting images, particularly when the swan first appeared in flashes on the screen, which clearly disturbed Anna Maria Chiuri’s Ortrud.  Chiuri was immensely watchable in the first act, her military uniform and hat meant that her face was in shadow, which gave her even more of an evil look than we often see.  Act 2, is set in an extremely bare stage, with de Angelis using his singers to drive the action forward – although having a clock count down 10 seconds projected on the back wall from time to time seemed unnecessarily confusing, indeed my seat neighbours were perplexed and couldn’t stop discussing this.  The same could be said for the giant sword that pointed out of the left-hand side of the set in Act 3 – although perhaps it was the source of Lohengrin’s magic as he defeated Telramund. 

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

The chorus, so important in this work, was ranged around the stage in a block in Act 2, while in the other acts, they were positioned in a military courthouse where Elsa was held on trial.  De Angelis gives us a useful framework for the action but there were some elements that seemed arbitrary and unconvincing.  An actor costumed as Wagner occasionally appears on stage or sits in one of the stage-side boxes.  I have no idea on what he added to the proceedings, although when he brought Gottfried out at the end (a young boy dressed in military dress uniform), this could have been a means to make us reflect on how Wagner brought this work to the world.  Similarly, having a red projection on the back of the stage during the opening of Act 2 scene between Ortrud and Telramund, felt rather too much of a clichéd view of evil, as indeed did having Elsa as a blonde maiden perambulating in a white dress as an equally clichéd view of innocence.  Though I must admit the illuminated white dress for Elsa and white suit for Lohengrin were quite fetching, particularly on the, at times, dimly-lit stage. 

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

This was a serviceable enough staging, but what made the evening special was the contribution of the house orchestra and chorus, joined by their Ukrainian guests.  As far as I can recall, this was my first time hearing Italian forces in Wagner and it was a revelation.  The orchestra played this music as if it were bel canto – and it worked superbly.  The opening of the prelude, shimmering strings giving way to a soaring cantabile melody, felt so absolutely right, and throughout the evening, the Comunale orchestra responded to Fisch with playing of supreme beauty.  There was something about the way that the music was phrased tonight, the ebb and flow, that made everything seem so natural.  Even pages as frequently-heard as the Act 3 prelude and bridal chorus, here seemed to jump off the page, living with rhythmic vitality and the shape of the melodies brought out in a cantabile and pulchritudinous way.  Fisch led a reading that was intelligently paced throughout – the four and a half hours passed as if in an instant.  The orchestral playing, from the aforementioned shimmering strings, brass playing of virtuosity, and a solo oboe of sheer poetry, was superb.  The chorus made a massive sound, a huge, focused block that filled the auditorium in a blaze of sound.  The tenors and basses, in particular, singing with exceptional tuning and discipline.  This was choral singing of extraordinary distinction.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

There are some regrets though.  I last heard Daniel Kirch as a decent Parsifal in Bieito’s seminal staging in Stuttgart some four years ago.  Unfortunately, the intervening period hasn’t been kind to his tenor.  There were some good things tonight: the clarity of his diction, and his willingness to sing softly and to shade the tone.  I regret to say, there were also quite a few things that were less good.  I did wonder in his first entry if he couldn’t hear the orchestra, placed as he was far upstage, which would explain why he was extremely flat.  Sadly, this was the case for most of the evening.  Much of the role sits quite awkwardly right in Kirch’s passaggio, which requires exceptionally careful negotiation and wasn’t always successful.  He also had trouble sustaining long phrases at higher volumes and the breath control wasn’t always reliable.  Kirch gave generously of himself and it gives me no satisfaction to write that it was hard going for him and for us tonight.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

Making her European debut in this run is Sydney, Australia soprano, Anna-Louise Cole.  Cole has a good-sized soprano that could potentially have a bright future in this repertoire.  The tone itself, at times, has a touch of metal at the core and she has clearly worked exceptionally hard at the text, singing it with clarity.  To my ears, however, the technique sounds unfinished.  As the evening progressed, the metal in the core dissipated, being replaced by a chalky sound.  Her ‘Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen’ was sung with a genuine attempt to sing quietly, pulling the tone down to a thread, but it also sounded not entirely supported at the core.  The top vibrates generously, even more so when she appears to put pressure on the tone to create more volume.  Cole most certainly has the raw material and is a promising talent, one hopes that she has the right people around her to guide her forward. 

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

As Ortrud, Anna Maria Chiuri made so much of the text, spitting it out with terrific malice.  Hers was a more three-dimensional Ortrud than the evil harridan we often see.  She brought out a subtle, needling edge in her poisoning of Elsa’s mind.  Her ‘Entweihte Götter’ wasn’t just an explosion of sound, but something deeper and more subtle, finding light and shade, yet not lacking in power either.  Yes, her final pages took Chiuri beyond her limits, the tone losing body as she raged, but her textual acuity and willingness to take risks were tremendously exciting.  Throughout, she sang this music with the kind of phrasing that Fisch found in the orchestra, and with the utmost scrupulous attention to Wagner’s dynamic markings.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

As Telramund, Ólafur Siguardarson sang with an exceptionally firm baritone, seemingly without limits at the top, everything sung off the text.  His was a Telramund that was truly sung, with a voice that was of an ideal size, and never succumbed to the urge to hector.  Albert Dohmen brought dignity to the role of Heinrich, singing it in a resonant bass, that descended to the sepulchral depths.  Lukas Zeman brought a lieder singer’s attention to text as the Heerufer and a handsome baritone. 

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi

There was so much that was special tonight.  Yes, there were some considerable reservations – Kirch was regrettably very much out of sorts, and Cole has promise even if the technique, as yet, sounds unfinished.  De Angelis gives us an efficient enough staging that looks good.  But what I’ll take with me from tonight is the sound of the orchestra and chorus and the sheer beauty that they found in this music, the way they made it soar and let it take wing, phrasing it with love and care.  The evening was received with a generous ovation for the entire cast and the Bolognese audience listened throughout with rapt attention. 

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