Bayreuth’s 1967 Lohengrin Recreated by the Prague National Opera

02/06/2018

Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra / Constantin Trinks (conductor), The National Theatre, Prague. 27.5.2018. (RP)

Dana Burešová (Elsa) in Prague National Opera’s Lohengrin © Patrik Borecký

Cast:

King Heinrich – Jiří Sulženko
Lohengrin – Aleš Briscein
Elsa – Dana Burešová
Telramund – Olafur Sigurdarson
Ortrud – Eliška Weissová
Herald – Vladimír Chmelo
First Nobleman – Vladimír Doležal
Second Noblemen – Vít Šantora
Third Noblemen – Ivo Hrachovec
Fourth Noblemen – Roman Vocel
Gottfried – Filip Brada

Production:

Original Concept and Set Designer – Wolfgang Wagner
Director – Katharina Wagner
Costume Designer – Thomas Kaiser
Lighting Designer – Marc Löhrer
Chorus Masters – Pavel Vaněk & Adolf Melichar

A week earlier, I had been transported to far-off places by the Prague National Opera’s production of Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (review click here). On an equally glorious Sunday evening, with all sorts of little boats on the Moldau and the streets jammed with tourists, I returned for time travel of a different sort, a recreation of Wolfgang Wagner’s 1967 staging of Lohengrin for the Bayreuth Festspiele.

Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of the composer and great-grandson of Franz Liszt, was at the helm of the festival until 2008, when he was succeeded by his daughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. I have never been to Bayreuth, but I gather that booing is de rigueur there, and that Katharina Wagner, who oversaw this production, receives her fair share of jeers, as did her grandfather in his day. There were no boos, however, on this night, only cheers.

Recreating the production was a bit of an archaeological dig. No drawings of the sets exist, so they had to be reproduced from photographs and the memories of the original set designer, stage technician, makeup artist and others. The piano-vocal scores containing the notes of the stage manager and assistant musical directors were invaluable in the process.

An exact replication of the original production was impossible. The Prague National Theater’s stage is not as large of that of the Festspielhaus, which necessitated smaller sets and a reduced chorus. Budget also came into play. For example, the real leather originally used in the men’s costumes is now prohibitively expensive.

Historical authenticity was important for Wolfgang Wagner, but he did not eschew the modern, including the then-emerging tendency towards abstraction. He set the action in the Romanesque era, delineating the space for human interaction from that of the supernatural by an azure blue backdrop. The swan was convincing enough, but a bit of twenty-first century stage magic was in order in the final seconds of the opera: Gottfried simply walked on stage arm-in-arm with Lohengrin.

Wolfgang Wagner also embraced modern technology, especially when it came to lighting. For this production, the technical advancements of the past 50 years were likewise not spurned. One cannot help but think the lighting effects were more subtle and evocative than they would have been in the original staging. The old-fashioned follow spotlights, however, were a reminder of just how effective they can be.

Wolfgang Wagner was prone to use specific architectural examples in his sets. The plant motifs in Acts I and III came from the bronze doors of the Basilica di San Zeno in Verona, and the ornamentation of the bridal chamber in Act II was taken from the Porta di San Ranieri of the Pisa Cathedral. That’s what was considered abstract at the time.

As did his grandfather, Wolfgang Wagner focused on the human drama of the story, particularly Lohengrin’s clash with the world to which he sought to bind himself by marriage to Elsa. Katherina Wagner grasped and conveyed that essential element of her grandfather’s production. The Swan Knight was equal parts protagonist and observer, bewildered at the end that he could be betrayed by the woman whom he had come to aid in her hour of need, and trusted so.

Aleš Briscein was a youthful, heroic Lohengrin, mysterious yet noble. His gleaming, tightly focused tenor carried effortlessly through the theater. He held the audience in his thrall as he declaimed ‘In fernem Land’, his voice blooming beautifully when he sang of the Grail and its mysteries. It was a mark not only of his artistry but also that of conductor Constantin Trinks that the entire performance built to that exact moment when all was revealed.

If there was a certain reserve, almost other worldliness, to Briscein’s Lohengrin, Dana Burešová’s Elsa was clearly of this world, living in the moment. She experienced humiliation, untold bliss and inconsolable loss with equal grace. Burešová’s singing likewise had a certain urgency to it, her gleaming voice conveying Elsa’s every emotion, although rapture suited her best.

Gruff and blunt in appearance as Telramund, Olafur Sigurdarson’s voice is cut from more elegant cloth. Brandishing huge swords, he engaged in mortal combat with Lohengrin. Humiliated by his defeat, he raged at Ortrud over the web of lies she had spun, but fell to his knees, contrite and desperate, begging for her love. Their scenes together were charged with eroticism.

Eliška Weissová was deliciously wicked and imperious as Ortrud. Comfortable at either extreme of the role’s vast vocal range, she literally hurled her curse across the stage at Elsa. At full volume she tended to shriek, but then Ortrud is in meltdown mode much of the time. The red lighting when she appeared on stage in the second act telegraphed as much.

Jiří Sulženko as King Heinrich was sonorous of voice, holding forth with regal authority over the drama in which he played little part and was powerless to control. Vladimír Chmelo had a rough start as the Herald, but he gained in authority as his voice settled.

It took a while for the audience to settle down too. Trinks started then stopped the overture, turned to the audience and requested silence. The sounds that emerged from the pit were seamless, as if released in a single, long, extended breath. This same effect was achieved when Elsa described the knight that she had seen in her dreams, when those themes again sounded.

The orchestra played splendidly. Immediacy was provided by trumpets placed in one of the side boxes and blazing brilliantly. The backstage orchestra, with those same trumpets doing double duty, provided grandeur to the pageantry, as did the luxury of an actual pipe organ.

Planted firmly in place, the chorus produced an impressive sound en masse. In exposed passages the tenors could sound a bit ragged, but those moments were fleeting. The women’s voices shimmered in the delicate, lilting ‘Bridal Chorus’.

After the final notes had sounded, the woman sitting next to me turned and said, ‘Ich bin begeistert’. (She was Czech but lived in Munich.) It is a phrase that I always have trouble translating into English from German. Somehow, delighted or thrilled does not quite capture its meaning, but I knew exactly what she meant.

Rick Perdian

For future performance dates of the National Opera Prague’s Lohengrin in 2018 and 2019, please click here.

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