Switzerland Wagner: Lohengrin, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Simone Young (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich, 11.7.15 (RP)
Heinrich der Vogler: Günther Groissböck
Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa von Brabant: Elza van den Heever
Friedrich von Telramund: Martin Gantner
Ortrud: Petra Lang
The King’s Herald: Michael Kraus
Four Noblemen of Brabant: Iain Milne, Spencer Lang, Bastian Thomas Kohl, Roberto Lorenzi
Four Pages: Claire Singher, Stefanie Sembritzki, Barbara Hahn, Anja Dorfmüller
Director: Andreas Homoki
Stage and costume design: Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting design: Franck Evin
Chorus master: Jürg Hämmerli
Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze
The opening bars of the overture were the softest, most transcendent sounds that I have ever heard emerge from an orchestral pit. The shimmering, pulsating strings created the atmosphere for what proved to be an exceptionally fine performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Zurich Opera. Later, the overture to Act III was a brilliant, heraldic march that ushered in a fine rendition of the famous Bridal March. Simone Young, who heads both the opera and the orchestra in Hamburg, has gained a reputation as a Wagner specialist and, based on this performance, deservedly so. Audience members stood and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of this petite woman every time she moved on or off the podium. It’s not often that one sees a female in the Zurich Opera’s pit, or anywhere else for that matter, and perhaps they just wanted a good look at one.
I am not a diehard Wagnerite, but I’ve heard my fair share of his operas. Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin ranks among the finest Wagner singers that I’ve ever experienced, and there have been some to reckon with over the years, including Hildegard Behrends, Peter Hoffman, Christa Ludwig and Leonie Rysanek. All had the rare combination of voice, physique, sensitivity to the text and affinity for Wagner’s style that make these magical, monumental, but often all-too-human characters come to life. If you were told to mentally conjure up an image of a medieval Teutonic prince, for many it would be a man who looks much like Vogt.
Of course the physical is just the icing on the cake when it comes to opera singers. It is the voice, the voice and once again the voice that really count. We first see Lohengrin in a long white shirt, lying on the floor in a fetal position. The sounds that emerged from that somewhat pathetic, mysterious figure were simply beautiful, on par with the opening of the overture. In his lower range, the quality is like molten bronze; throughout, his diction was exemplary. The third act contains both of Lohengrin’s big arias, and his voice was still fresh, the phrasing exquisite. In the first, “In fernem Land,” Young’s masterful control of the orchestra permitted Vogt to sing the phase “Alljährlich naht vom Himmel eine Taube” with great expression, including a beautiful diminuendo on the final word (dove in English). During the final aria, “Mein lieber Schwan,” there were moments when the orchestra was barely audible and Vogt’s voice just a thread of sound. His sincerity, nobility and love for Elsa made it devastatingly clear what she had lost in yielding to the doubts placed in her mind by Ortrud.
Petra Lang was evil and malice personified as Ortrud. It was she alone who orchestrated Elsa’s betrayal of Lohengrin’s trust. Friedrich von Telramund, her husband, was just putty in her hands. Whether singing or silently observing, Lang demanded the audience’s attention, but always as a part of the ensemble, never permitting the drama to lose its focus. Lang also has the vocal goods. She hurls out her threats, curses and insults with force. Her top can thin out at times, a surprise from someone who has sung Brünnhilde in the Ring Cycle, but she left little doubt as to why she has received such acclaim for her Ortrud.
Elza van den Heever’s Elsa von Brabant was a radiant, robust beauty. Elsa’s transformation from a forlorn young girl to a noble woman whose character has been tempered through loss, betrayal and love was deeply moving. Vocally, however, she seemed to be struggling. At a performance earlier in the week, it had been announced that she was ill, and perhaps she was not in optimal vocal state. There was alternatively a flutter or a harsh edge to her voice. At times she was practically inaudible, and at others the high notes soared. Nonetheless, the Zurich audience rewarded her with warm applause during the curtain calls. The strength of her visual characterization outweighed the uneven singing, and she clearly deserves another hearing when she is in prime vocal health.
Günther Groissböck as Heinrich der Vogler was a last minute substitute for Christof Fischesser (who sounded fine the evening before as Oreste in Strauss’s Elektra, admittedly a less demanding role). With an established international career in many of the world’s major opera houses, and having sung the role in Munich, he fit seamlessly into the production. His voice and command of text were second to none in the cast. Martin Gantner is an artist of the same caliber. His voice was a bit muffled at first, but it gained in strength and clarity as Friedrich grasped at increasingly desperate measures to discredit his nameless rival, only to be killed by his own sword.
Andreas Homoki, artistic director of the Zurich Opera, placed the action in Bavaria in the late 19th or early 20th century. According to the program, he did this as Wagner’s tale of Lohengrin was historically inaccurate: a unified Germany only became a reality in 1871, with no historical medieval precedent. He also sought to draw an analogy between the lack of political unity among the medieval German principalities and the current situation in the European Union. Without the program notes I would have been unaware of any of this, and I might not be alone in questioning whether a unified and powerful German Reich was what Europe needed in the long run. But then again, that might have been a point that he was trying to make.
A small, realistic statue of a swan was also central to Homoki’s concept. Elsa first entered holding it securely against her body, unaware that her brother, Gottfied, had been transformed into a swan and was not really dead. It vanished when Lohengrin appeared, and reappeared to return Lohengrin to the realm of his father, leaving Gottfried in his place, a nervous, prostrate creature in white, just as Lohengrin had been when he first appeared. For the principals, clothes indicate the status of their respective characters. Elsa and Lohengrin start off in what appear to be basically white undergarments and don ornate golden costumes as they prepare for their wedding. It was the reverse progression for Ortrud and Friedrich, although Ortrud regains hers as her schemes worked their invidious ways on Elsa. Friedrich, who never redeems himself in any manner whatsoever, remains unclothed to his demise.
This final performance of Lohengin this season was musically thrilling. It was not only the main characters and orchestra that performed so wonderfully. The chorus, especially the men, sang with depth and warmth. And for sheer brilliance, what could possibly equal the herald trumpets playing their fanfares from boxes on either side of the stage? The hall resounded. Historically accurate or not, Wagner’s Lohengrin is a wonderful tale both dramatically and musically, and opera doesn’t require much more than for the musicians on stage and in the pit to do it justice. The Zurich Opera’s Lohengrin excelled in that regard.