Taipei Times, Mar 13, 2011
By Bradley Winterton
Classical DVD reviews

A new pair of DVDs of Wagner’s Lohengrin from Decca is of great interest. They bear comparison both with the version starring Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer and with that starring Peter Hofmann and Eva Marton (plus a stunning Leonie Rysanek as Ortrud). But whereas those two earlier renditions were traditional in staging, this one is different, and needs some explanation.

The opera, meant to take place in medieval northern Europe, is here set in the 1930s, though Lohengrin’s blue T-shirt, not to mention a video camera at one point, look out of place even for that. A fascist state is suggested, with guards holding back the populace (loyal enough, you would have thought) and be-suited thugs protecting the villainous Telramund. More significant is the construction throughout most of the opera of an onstage house. This is Lohengrin and Elsa’s future love nest, and you know in advance that it will eventually be brought to ruin, though how this happens comes as a surprise.

This kind of treatment could ruin an intensely Romantic opera like Lohengrin, but it’s carried off with professionalism and just manages to work. Most important is that the musical values of the production are so high that it would have taken more than even this to throw it off track.

The Lohengrin of the young Jonas Kaufmann made the headlines, and he is indeed outstanding throughout. But the Elsa of Anja Harteros proves to be every bit his equal, while the Telramund of Wolfgang Koch is so dynamic he threatens to outshine even the two leads. Michaela Schuster as Ortrud is also of stellar quality, as are Christof Fischesser as Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitrin as the Herald. This, in other words, is a Lohengrin without a weak link, and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and chorus, with Kent Nagano conducting, are also outstanding.

So if you want a modern version of this opera, with the highest musical qualities, this version from the Munich Opera House can be unreservedly recommended. If part of the attraction of Lohengrin for you is what Thomas Mann praised as its unique evocation of the medieval dream, an idealized yet vividly concrete world of mystic faith and heraldic shields, then you will be wise to stay with one of the earlier versions.

The camera work of this Lohengrin is exceptionally clear and strong. Kaufmann in tears at having finally to reveal his name and origin, Harteros neurotically pacing back and forth, Nikitin issuing the leader’s orders through a 1930s microphone — all are caught in close-up and with great precision. The video director is Karina Fabich.

The controversial staging is by Richard Jones, the enfant terrible of British theater and opera whose production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Covent Garden in the mid-1990s was greeted, on its opening night, with howls of derision. He seems to have more nearly got it right this time, though purists will continue to disapprove.

As for Kaufmann, he was invited to sing Lohengrin at Bayreuth shortly after this Munich debut, and will sing Siegmund at the Met next month in the second installment of Robert LePage’s Ring cycle.


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