Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010Posted on 10 February 2010
This Götz Friedrich production, with sets and costumes by Peter Sykora, has a warmth and immediacy that emphasises the human weaknesses and machinations of the story. Friedrich’s excellent staging is well supported by the performers, particularly Waltraud Meier, who plays the evil Ortrud with subtle malice, and Eike Wilm Schulte, who portrays a fiercely tendentious Telramund with a commanding voice — this nasty pair both exhibit great stage presence. King Henry the Fowler was beautifully sung by Markus Brück, and Elsa was well portrayed, with suitable frailty, by Ricarda Merbeth. She sang well and I only wish she’d shown less tension in her face during Act I, as I prefer to see Elsa exhibit sublime confidence in finding a champion against the malicious accusations that she has killed her young brother Gottfried. The hero she awaits, who will defeat Telramund and his sorceress-wife Ortrud, is Lohengrin himself. This was Ben Heppner, who sang out boldly with great lyricism, though his stage presence was mainly notable by its absence.
The orchestra was excellently conducted by Michael Schønwandt, and I loved the horns on stage, and later off-stage. These were glorious instruments without valves, beautifully played by Gerhard Greif, Kurt Kratz, Ulrich Riehl and Joachim Weigert. The staging and the music were both very fine, and the lighting was quite remarkable. The gradual fade-outs on Telramund and Ortrud, and the glow on Elsa, were particularly well done. The bridesmaids and church choristers were nice touches in this production, and as Elsa enters the church at the end of Act II she pauses to look back at Ortrud, a moment that was well lit and dramatically emphasised.
Although Lohengrin is my least favourite Wagner opera — I find Act II overlong, and have a secret admiration for Rossini’s alleged comment that, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time” — this production is wonderful, and perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.
Unlike you, I love ‘Lohengrin’ but this production is definitely showing its age. The dull sets were unexciting but the individually designed costumes for the female chorus members more than compensated for that in their lavishness.
I approached this performance with trepidation when I learned that Ben Heppner was to sing the title role. Having heard him as Herod and Tristan last year at Covent Garden, I was not expecting to enjoy myself very much. But I had forgotten how little there is for Lohengrin to do except at the beginning and end of the opera so Heppner’s voice wasn’t taxed too much. His ‘In fernem Land’ was lovely and compensated somewhat for his lack of acting ability. The white-knuckle ride I normally expect with this singer thankfully didn’t materialise on this occasion.
Ricarda Merbeth, heroine of last year’s wonderful ‘Aegyptische Helena’ at the Deutsche Oper, in my opinion lacks the sweetness of voice needed for Elsa.
And Waltraud Meier – what can one say? She is always the perfect Wagnerian, giving her considerable all both vocally and in her acting. In January I had the good fortune to hear her as Venus in ‘Tannhauser’ in Munich and she was wonderful there too. She certainly lifted this performance.
Eike Wilm Schulte has all the vocal reserves neccessary for Telramund but visually he looks so comical. He simply isn’t the right shape for a heroic villain and his acting is non existent. Normally I can suspend disbelief as well as the next person but not on this occasion. However, the audience didn’t seem to mind that and his vocal performance was deservedly acclaimed.
As you so rightly mentioned, the brass arranged onstage and from the theatre boxes made a thrilling sound to great dramatic effect.