Lohengrin Still Showing Mortier’s Influence

SpainSpain Wagner, Lohengrin: Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Hartmut Haenchen/Walter Althammer (conductors), Teatro Real, Madrid, 10 & 11.4.2014. (JMI)

Lohengrin 2519-600

New production
Direction: Lukas Hemleb
Sets: Alexander Polzin
Costumes: Woijciech Dziedzic
Lighting: Urs Schönebaum
Lohengrin: Christopher Ventris/Michael König
Elsa: Catherine Naglestad/Anne Schwanewilms
Ortrud: Deborah Polaski/Dolora Zajick
Telramund: Thomas J. Mayer/Thomas Jesatko
King Henry: Franz Hawlata/Goran Juric
Herald: Anders Larsson

Lohengrin returned to Teatro Real after nine years of absence, and it has really been a tribute to Gerard Mortier. The overall result was positive, with an excellent musical version and a new stage production that is more traditional than usual lately in this house, but a somewhat irregular cast.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to attend excellent performances of Lohengrin under exceptional conductors, and what we got in this respect from Hartmut Haenchen could be among the best I have experienced. His reading was brilliant, intense and inspired, and always supportive of the singers. There was tension and good rhythm, and his reading was among the fastest in recent years. In fact, it was a little quicker than Andris Nelsons’s in Bayreuth and almost fourteen minutes shorter than what Sebastian Weigle offered at Liceu during the visit of Bayreuth to Barcelona last season. The following day we had Walter Althammer, who had been Mr. Haenchen’s assistant during rehearsals, in the pit. Mr. Althammer followed the path of Mr. Haenchen, with slightly lower tempi, in an overall sound reading.

There’s no question that Gerard Mortier has left an important musical legacy at Teatro Real, namely the dramatic improvement in both orchestra and chorus. If any further evidence were needed, this Lohengrin can be considered as definitive: it was a magnificent performance from the orchestra, and it would be difficult to improve upon what the chorus offered.

The casts were also what one can expect from Gerard Mortier, whose love for voices always left something to be desired.

Christopher Ventris was Lohengrin in the first cast. His performance was good overall, with a voice well-suited to the demands of the character but a little short of nuances. The top of the tessitura presents some problems for him ̶  it’s rather forced here and there ̶  but he ably solved the high notes of In Fernem Land. Michael König has appeared quite frequently in Madrid in recent years. On the many occasions I’ve heard him in the past I always found him to be a tenor without much interest, with a center of a certain quality and serious problems at the top of the range. To my surprise, that was not the case this time. He may not be the Lohengrin of one’s dreams, but he’s a very reliable performer who solved without problems all the difficulties of the score.

Catherine Naglestad as Elsa offered a most convincing performance. She developed the character perfectly, from the fragile and dreamy heroine of the first act to the more dramatic woman of Act Three, without any problems of tessitura. In the second cast, Anne Schwanewilms was an exemplary Elsa during the firt act and the duet with Ortrud in the second, difficult to improve upon in vocal terms. But from the aforementioned duet, the part of Elsa becomes more dramatic and requires an evolution in the interpreter, which did not happen with Ms. Schwanewilms. She continued singing with gusto but with excessive coldness, and the character of Elsa fell short of drama. It should be added that she cracked dramatically in the top note following her questions to Lohengrin.

Deborah Polaski was one of the most important dramatic sopranos in the 1980s and ’90s, but today she is but a shadow of her former self. She was a convincing Ortrud on stage, but the tessitura of the character presented ongoing problems for her. The difference in age between Dolora Zajick and Deborah Polaski is less than 3 years, but in vocal terms the difference is huge. Dolora Zajick triumphed as Ortrud in the second cast, offering an intensity in her singing and keeping her volume intact in the upper register.

Thomas Johannes Mayer was well-suited to the part of Telramund. I rather prefer a darker voice for this character, but he was good, and better than in some of the Wotans I have seen from him. Thomas Jesatko was somewhat rough, one-dimensional and monotonous in his singing. His voice is there, but it takes more than that to be convincing.

Franz Hawlata has always been one of the incomprehensible vocal preferences of Gerard Mortier, and he was once again his King Heinrich. His bass has a few notes in the center that are attractive, but the sound is very weak at the bottom and his high notes were as faded as usual. Goran Juric was more acceptable and better suited to the role. He is far from being an exceptional singer, but he should have been in the first cast.

It’s difficult to understand the presence of Anders Larsson in the part of the Herald. One does not need to leave Spain to find better alternatives.

This new production bears the signature of Lukas Hemleb and is based on sets by Alexander Polzin, whose sculpture of a transparent cube seems to have become the media attraction of this production. The set consists of a kind of cave, closed at the top, with side openings and holes at different heights. This allows for two important things: first, it helps the projection of voices which always suffers with open sets; and second, it enhances the excellent lighting by Urs Schonebaum. The costumes are rather timeless, always in shades of gray for the choir, while Lohengrin and Elsa wear white robes.

The stage direction was respectful to the text, although there was no swan ̶  for today’s directors it appears to be an extinct species ̶  nor horn, sword or ring (this last apparently replaced by a bunch of hair from Lohengrin). The movement of the masses could have been more imaginative, but it was sufficient.

José Mª. Irurzun

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