Washinton Post, July 29, 2010
Joe Banno
On DVD: Lohengrin
For any Wagnerians who’ve been slumbering, Fafner-like, in their caves during the last few years, here’s your wake-up call: Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor we’ve been waiting for. With a voice reminiscent of the young Jon Vickers, but with more warmth and Mediterranean luster, and with the kind of matinee-idol looks and committed acting that make him a compelling presence onstage, Kaufmann outclasses all of his current competitors in the heldentenor stakes.

A new DVD of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” from the Bavarian State Opera’s 2009 Opera Festival displays Kaufmann’s gifts (in the title role) at their most magnetic. The sheer heft and beauty of his sound, his command of legato, his ability to fine down his voice to the tenderest whisper – these are qualities as rare in today’s Wagner tenors as are the emotional engagement and moment-to-moment responsiveness of his acting in the Act 3 love duet, or the age-appropriate, romantic figure he cuts throughout.

Happily, Kaufmann’s Lohengrin is partnered by an Elsa fully up to his standard – soprano Anja Harteros, whose luminous, warmly communicative singing has one reaching for Golden Age comparisons like Elizabeth Grummer and Maria Muller. Wolfgang Koch’s powerfully sung Telramund, Michaela Schuster’s Ortrud (wonderfully detailed in her conniving allure, and relatively free of the harshness so many mezzos bring to this role), Christof Fischesser’s anxious, supple-toned Heinrich, and a notably forthright Herald from Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin, complete this unusually fine cast. Kent Nagano conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in an expressively molded reading that balances power and chamber-music detail.

Not everyone will welcome director Richard Jones’ arresting, somewhat enigmatic staging, which re-imagines medieval Brabant as what appears to be Germany, c.1930, on the eve of the National Socialist election victory – a bourgeois, militarized society of cowed, rule-bound citizens, who labor through all three acts to construct a stark, A-frame house onstage. The house (and its “barn-raising” construction) serves as an apt visual metaphor for the manufactured domesticity, anti-individualist politics and building of false hope that pervade this opera. (And the morphing of the mid-century costumes into character-erasing tee-shirts by the last act nicely evokes the gradual suppression of free-thinking, and pulls the action effectively into the present.)

Thought-provoking, to be sure, but the staging has its distracting and heavy-handed moments. Even so, Wagner-lovers allergic to this European brand of deconstruction are advised to simply close their eyes. On no account, though, should Kaufmann’s standard-setting performance be missed.

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