Richard Wagner - Lohengrin
Semperoper, Dresden - 2016
Christian Thielemann, Christine Mielitz, Georg Zeppenfeld, Piotr Beczala, Anna Netrebko, Tomasz Konieczny, Evelyn Herlitzius, Derek Welton, Tom Martinsen, Simeon Esper, Matthias Henneberg, Tilmann Rönnebeck
Although there are many more interesting ways of exploring the themes within them, you can probably get away with presenting Der fliegende Holländer or Tannhäuser in straightforward traditional productions and trust that Wagner's compositions will speak for themselves. The composer's more mature works on the other hand have philosophical content and personal with complex and competing layers and levels that merit the deeper exploration and elaboration of a strong directorial vision. And then you have the problem of Lohengrin.
Lohengrin remains a tricky and a controversial work to approach on account of its nationalistic sentiments and the later appropriation of them by Hitler and the Nazis, who twisted those ideals to appeal to their own ideology of national and racial purity. Wagner's own view is rather more nuanced - although perhaps not quite so much in this work where the composer was just beginning to formulate a view of art, culture, tradition and mythology (to which he was making a not entirely modest contribution) as the founding common values that define a nation, a banner under which to put one's faith and trust as much as in any ruler or religion.
Those values espoused in Lohengrin are perhaps not the same values that persist today, so either the work has to be considered in the context of the time it was written or it must be re-evaluated for its relevance to the present day. Wagner, as a composer, is far too important to remain for his works to remain stagnant relics of a past time. To play the opera straight and ignore the historical legacy of the work however is surely negligent and potentially troubling, but if there is a place where those somewhat conservative values can still have meaning and resonance, it's Dresden.
Christine Mielitz's production of Lohengrin for the Dresden Semperoper in May 2016 is resolutely period and traditional, the treatment serious and respectful, with not a trace of irony or a whiff of modernism. The sets and costumes are lavish, the inhabitants of Brabant all dressed as wealthy burghers and nobles, with even the common people who stray into the dispute over the Duchy that King Heinrich has been called to resolve - and who will no doubt be called upon to fight in his God-ordained war with Hungary - also seemingly dressed in neatly cleaned and pressed rags.
The direction holds to a straight representation of the original stage directions and a broad view of the characterisation. There's no exploration for any deeper or more nuanced characterisation: good and evil hold to their strict Manichean divisions. There's no experimentation or commentary on the work's themes, no rats in a Hans Neuenfels' Bayreuth laboratory, just complete adherence and blind faith in the ability of Wagner's music to speak for itself, just as the work appears to advocate putting one's faith and trust in God and King Heinrich to point the way towards keeping a nation pure. And with a music director like Christian Thielemann at the helm at the Semper that faith isn't entirely misplaced.
Having established (at some length) that there's not a lot to grasp onto here in terms of concept or direction, the Dresden production has more to offer in terms of actual performance. Thielemann captures the full extent of the warm lush Romantic strains of the score, and the choruses are just glorious. Wagner's music for Lohengrin practically glows here. It's in the division of the singing roles however that the interest is likely to be focussed, with seasoned traditional Wagnerians on one side of the divide and a somewhat less conventional line-up on the other side. All perform very well indeed, if not quite in the way you would expect, but the contrasting styles do bring an interesting dimension to the work that isn't otherwise there in the stage production and the direction.
On the Wagnerian 'dark side' (if I may also include Heinrich in there), I have to get Georg Zeppenfeld out of the way first, since his performance as Heinrich is every bit as reliably brilliant as you might expect, particularly if you've seen him sing this role faultlessly and with considerable character several times already. Although he can sing with more colour and expression in Strauss, I find that Tomasz Konieczny's baritone singing for Wagner sounds rather harsh and steely. It's perhaps a little better suited to the villainous Telramund here than Wotan however. Evelyn Herlitzius can also be variable in her Wagner roles, and her high pitch and delivery sounded a little too close to toppling right over the edge, but again that can work within the context of the characterisation for Ortrud, and Herlitzius, as she often does, certainly makes an impression.
The Wagner virgins (if I may be permitted to describe them as such) are nonetheless two of the finest singers in the world today, better known for their performances in the very different Italian and principally Verdi repertoire. Who wouldn't be fascinated to hear Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala sing the roles of Elsa von Brabant and Lohengrin? Netrebko had at least road-tested the role of Elsa just prior to her performances in Dresden with a run at the Mariinsky in Moscow, and she's typically assiduous in her preparation and technique, demonstrating here that she is well up to the demands of the role. Her German diction leaves something to be desired however, her enunciation rather woolly and almost completely indecipherable.
That aside - and it will be a bigger deal for some to dismiss so easily - her dramatic performance is good and it really is fascinating just to hear that type of voice and the sheer quality of Netrebko's voice in this role. The same goes almost exactly for Piotr Beczala, particularly when Klaus Florian-Vogt's distinctive light lyrical tone has more or less monopolised the role of Lohengrin in recent years. It's not exactly a Heldentenor voice, but there is a heroic delivery and brightness here, Beczala taking on the role with the kind of confidence and charisma that it requires. If Mielitz's direction doesn't have anything new to bring to Lohengrin, Netrebko luxurious tones and Beczala's warm brightness blend gorgeously with the golden glow of Thielemann's conducting in a way that suggests a whole new way of hearing the work.
Links: Dresden Semperoper, ARTE Concert