Germany Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Chorus director: William Spaulding), Donald Runnicles (conductor). Deutsche Oper Berlin, Germany 21.12.2014. (JPr)
Heinrich der Vogler: Ain Anger
Lohengrin: Roberto Saccà
Elsa von Brabant: Heidi Melton
Friedrich von Telramund: John Lundgren
Ortrud: Petra Lang
Herald: Bastiaan Everink
Four Brabantine Noblemen: Paul Kaufmann, Álvaro Zambrano, Noel Bouley and Thomas Lehman
Director: Kasper Holten
Sets and Costumes: Steffen Aarfing
Lighting: Jesper Kongshaug
It is night-time and somewhat crudely painted on a backdrop there is a comet seen in the sky and on the ground there are the corpses of dead soldiers. At the initial climax of the ethereal Prelude one of the women roaming the battlefield screams as she recognises a loved one amongst the fallen. A black frontcloth comes down with the name ‘Lohengrin’ painted on it, again rather sketchily. It eventually goes back up and on stage the excellent Ain Anger as King Henry attempts to rouse the troops for a new war against the Hungarians … and possibly also against the Danes.
The director, Kasper Holten, who is himself a Dane, mentions in a programme the imposing Berlin Victory Column that can be seen not far from the Deutsche Oper and which commemorates Prussia’s victory in the German-Danish War of 1864. Holten, who is of course now the director of opera at Covent Garden, has yet to stage any Wagner of his own there, although a Die Meistersinger is scheduled for the 2016-17 season. I hope he has some good ideas for that because this Lohengrin was intriguing rather than thought-provoking and here – as probably somewhat diluted since its première in 2012 – it seemed like an elaborately staged concert performance, especially considering the limited movement of one of the singers.
Before the Berlin Wall came down a quarter of a century ago West Berlin’s Deutsche Oper was probably Germany’s best opera company. The opera house is still Berlin’s largest but increasingly more a functional concrete monolith than ever. In recent years it has been overshadowed a little by its two competitors in the former East, the Komische Oper and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, despite having distinguished musical directors such as Christian Thielemann and Donald Runnicles, who is currently in charge. I have seen some splendid Wagner before at the Deutsche Oper including a memorable Tristan und Isolde in 2000 conducted by Thielemann that marked René Kollo’s remarkable final performance as Tristan. Although this Lohengrin could never eclipse that particular evening, it was musically of a higher standard than most of the Wagner put on in London.
The Staatsoper will reopen soon after an extensive period of renovation and in order to try to keep pace with developments there the Deutsche Oper is having some of its stage machinery replaced. Because of the problems this was still causing, the first interval at this Lohengrin was nearly one hour long rather than the 30 minutes originally advertised. Truthfully, there actually wasn’t much scenery and it all looked old-before-its-time although it might not have been helped by the backstage renovations. For instance, at several moments in the first and last acts there is projected at the back of the stage the outline of a swan in flight, however, this was not seen very clearly even from my well-positioned seat near the front if the stalls.
The story of Lohengrin could be seen as a chivalric story of the Middle Ages and we might be shown the principals dressed in medieval-looking costumes such in Elijah Moshinsky’s long running production at Covent Garden last seen in 2009 (review) that shared with Berlin the same magnificent Ortrud from Petra Lang. I wrote then that ‘Petra Lang in the role of Ortrud, Elsa’s nemesis, “stole the show”. Nobody messes with this wicked witch! Petra Lang has a magnetic stage presence and the ability to express with both her voice and acting, every emotion from fawning submission through to the vengeful fury of this pagan sorceress, with stunning realism.’ Five years on that acting and singing is now so commanding that the opera could have been more realistically renamed ‘Ortrud’ as I could see the eyes of the audience rarely leaving her malevolent presence when she was on stage.
In his production Kasper Holten has the soldiers dressed in uniforms from a number of different epochs and I get the impression that they have been raised from the dead ready to fight one last battle. For various reasons Holten seems to be suggesting Lohengrin might not be as good as he seems, despite being Parsifal’s father. When he arrives it is not clear what really has happened to the missing Gottfried who should be leading the people of Brabant? However, there is the chalk outline of his probable murder shown on the floor, though it is not clear who is actually responsible for his disappearance. (Spoiler alert! Gottfried is definitely dead when he is shown in Act III.) Lohengrin is just an opportunist charlatan swanning in(!) to con them into electing him through his willingness to champion Elsa’s cause. The name Tony Blair occurred to me … but this is not the place to discuss this further! Suffice to say Holten sees Lohengrin as a ‘media politician’ … and Blair as ‘Middle East peace envoy’ is a shining example although he is not mentioned by name in the interview … whilst Obama is.
Having seen Hans Neuenfels’s gloriously rat-infested Lohengrin production each year at Bayreuth since 2010 it was good to see another version of this opera for once and with a vastly different ensemble of singers – apart, from Petra Lang, of course, who is quickly becoming the leading Ortrud of this generation. Once past Holten’s revisionism of the title character as suggested above, everything else is fairly traditional despite a clash of wings and all the period costumes with more abstract things. The set is – as indicated – fairly sparse and is at its most effective to frame when everyone gathers together in Acts I and III. For Act II there were some strange thin green strands of neon lighting dangling down onto the stage which Ortrud seemed to be venerating: this gave an evil ambiance to her exchanges with her husband, Telramund. Later, there is a huge cross that is tilted forward and comes down to represent the ‘balcony’ for Elsa’s early morning encounter with Ortrud and finally there is – what I understand is called – a mise en abyme effect for the wedding with a stage curtain concealing a representation of further proscenium arch. More curtains open to show the cathedral in slanted perspective. In Act III the sheet covering the ‘wedding bed’ is whipped away to reveal that the marriage has not been consummated and underneath is a catafalque matching what could be the war cemetery briefly displayed in the background.
Holten obviously has many fine ideas and these include the swan’s wings Lohengrin carries or wears as part of his ‘brand image’, his floodlit entry and then the dry ice that enshrouds the briefest of sword fights between him and Telramund. All this seems to hint at someone doing his ‘thing’ for maximum public effect. Truthfully, what was seen on stage might have worked a little better when this production was first put on because it would have benefitted from more preparation. However, what we heard made the visit to Berlin completely worthwhile. The chorus under the direction of William Spaulding is almost the equal of that heard at Bayreuth and along with the almost faultless orchestra under Donald Runnicles everyone concerned undoubtedly had Wagner in their blood. Although I was rather distracted by what I was shown on stage, the orchestral Prelude was dreamily atmospheric and many vividly colourful passages followed including all those choral moments that are the musical crux of any Lohengrin performance.
With Kasper Holten’s ideas about Lohengrin he needed to be someone oozing charisma – and probably with matinee idol looks. As much as I enjoyed Roberto Saccà’s performance he is small and slight and appeared dressed as an Anglican bishop – so he therefore did not match those criteria! At least he approached his singing with an element of lyrical refinement and because he eschewed any forcing of his tone all this clearly hinted that the singer’s has some Italian heritage. For some reason David Mellor ridiculously referred to Anna Netrebko recently as a ‘stately galleon’ and I wonder what he would have called the young American soprano, Heidi Melton? She was the ‘large’ to Roberto Saccà’s ‘little’ and they made for an incongruous pairing. It was disappointing to see a young singer in 2014 with so little mobility and this undermined her ability to illicit any sympathy for the guileless Elsa. Her voice is either loud or even louder with some softer singing only occasionally properly supported. I think she would have been much happier with a horned helmet and a spear and Elsa is a misstep.
At times Ms Melton seemed engaged in Act II in a ‘sing off’ with Petra Lang like they have in TV’s reality singing competition The Voice. She clearly lost that contest, for as Ortrud Ms Lang’s voice had no gear changes from its conspiratorial chest register to vehement top notes. Completing a fine cast was John Lundgren’s stentorian Telramund who suitably portrayed the humiliation and wounded pride of his character; Ain Anger and Bastiaan Everink impressed as King Henry and the Herald … and the noblemen and pages sounded impeccable.
For more about performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin visit http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/.