Musicweb International
Jose Maria Irurzun
R.Wagner: Lohengrin
R.Wagner: Lohengrin Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Chor and Extrachor der Bayerisches Staatsoper. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Nationaltheater München. 19.07.2009. (JMI)
Foto: W. Hösl
It seems that whenever I attend the Münchner Opernfestpiele I bring bad luck with me. Last year my first evening saw the cancellation of Anja Harteros as Arabella. This year I arrived for the last performance of Lohengrin, without a doubt the hottest opera ticket in town – just as you would expect with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in the cast. Arriving at the Nationaltheater and not seeing any contrary announcement, I thought that what happened last year was an isolated case. Then somebody came out on stage to tell us that Jonas Kaufmann was sick and that they were fielding a substitute. The plane from London was delayed and Mr. Kaufmann had decided to sing Act I. It seemed that the plane delay continued and he agreed to sing Act II also. After the second intermission the theatre director was back on stage to tell us that the plane had finally arrived and that Mr. Kaufmann was already in bed on the road to recovery. The part was to be played by a stage assistant, while the new tenor was to sing from the right-hand side of the stage. Is this just a new case of bad luck on my part? I really don’t know.

Many of my readers will know already that this new production of Lohengrin has stirred up something of scandal with sonorous booing directed at British stage director Richard Jones. I am in favour of modern productions provided that they show respect for text and music - these are the only two real limits. Unfortunately, Richard Jones has offered his personal vision and it has little or nothing to do with Lohengrin. The action is brought forward to ‘modern’ times, probably the 1930s. Elsa wants to build a house, work that Lohengrin accepts after his fight with Telramund. The symbolism of building something is not a bad idea, if we think more of a new society than of a house. Indeed, the house is built little by little until it is finished at the beginning of Act III. Mr. Jones’ originality is indicated by an irritated Lohengrin after Elsa breaks her word and his reaction to set fire to the house. The final scene is a collective suicide, after Lohengrin returns to Montsalvat. Does this have anything to do with the libretto or the music? It is not the first time that this has happened with Lohengrin. I remember Peter Konwitschny’s production at Barcelona Liceu, where the action took place at school. That production had marvellous stage direction, while that of Mr. Jones is exactly the opposite. The choir sings as if we were in a concert version, albeit with costumes, while the direction of actors is too limited. In sum, this is just a new case of a bad production. I do not care whether stage works are modern, classic, old, traditional or even provocative. I only distinguish two kind of productions: good and bad. This belongs to the second category.

In charge of the musical direction we had Kent Nagano, who was one of the major attractions of these Lohengrin performances. His reading has been gaining in brightness and depth as the opera progressed. Act I was brilliant, but for my liking the sound volume was too much. The best part came in Act III, where Mr. Nagano found a perfect balance between brilliance and depth. In the circumstances of this performance, I should mention the exceptional care he showed for the new Lohengrin, coming from London and not from Montsalvat.

As I have said above, one of the major attractions of this Lohengrin was the presence of Munich-born tenor Jonas Kaufmann. It was his debut in the role, which he is slated to sing next year at Bayreuth. We all know that the third act of Lohengrin is the most demanding for the tenor, while the other two are rather easier. Unfortunately, the London aircraft arrived in time so that Kaufmann did not appear in Act III. What we could hear from him was excellent and far superior to any other of his colleagues in this role. He has a perfect voice, dark and bright, and I can only regret having missed him. His replacement was Norwegian Ivar Gilhuus, an already mature tenor who sang from one side of the stage. Gilhuus saved the performance, offering full knowledge of the score - he did not use it at all - and he offered a wide voice of poor quality, suffering at more than one moment.

Anja Harteros was an exceptional Elsa. She is one of the most interesting sopranos today. An attractive figure, her voice has widened in the last few years, being very homogeneous all along the tessitura, showing big power when the score requires it and keeping a very bright high register. I cannot think of any other soprano today who is better in this role. I look forward to her Alice Ford in a few days time. It is obvious that for now the Kaufmann-Harteros partnership is insuperable in this opera.

German baritone Wolfgang Koch was a very well suited Telramund. Powerful and fresh voiced, he is well suited to these kind of evil roles

I was not too convinced by Michaela Schuster as Ortrud. She lacks the requisite power and high notes for the part. She is a mezzo soprano and Ortrud is almost a soprano.

Christof Fischesser was an excellent King Heinrich der Vogler. He is not that well known outside Germany but we should hear more from him. Russian Evgeny Nikitin was a real luxury as the Herald.

The Theatre was completely sold out with many people in the neighbourhood showing “suche karte”. At the final bows, there was an overwhelming success for Anja Harteros. Kent Nagano was also cheered.

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