Review: Wagner’s Lohengrin / Wiener Staatsoper

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, 5 May 2024

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin

There is no conductor who conducts Wagner’s Lohengrin more subtly, mystically and colourfully than Christian Thielemann. Of all the living “Wagner conductors”, he is the number one sound magician, even if there are now younger colleagues on whom his filigree chisel is rubbing off in a pleasing way, such as the British conductor Alexander Soddy, who recently conducted an excellent Lohengrin at the Berlin State Opera. Of course, Thielemann’s genius is underlined by the fact that he conducts Wagner’s operas almost by heart, be it Tristan in Dresden or now Lohengrin in Vienna. This allows him to immerse himself in the music, to hear it anew in each performance and to make adjustments according to what the musicians and singers deliver on the night. In any case, Thielemann maintains his high artistry without a hint of routine, even though he has conducted this opera several times at short intervals, whether in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Dresden or now in Vienna.  All the sadder, of course, that it is all too rarely given an equally worthy production. Only one was truly magnificent, the older one by Christine Mielitz in Dresden. It did justice to the fairy-tale, mystical, romantic character of the opera. The music and the scenes were of a piece.

By contrast, the co-production with director duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, with which Thielemann made his farewell to the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2022, seems absurd with its fantastical thriller in which Elsa is said to have killed her brother Gottfried. However, the production is no scandal. Anna Viebrock’s set, with a weir system based on Vienna’s Auhof reservoir, may not be visually appealing with its grey on grey, but at least it is not quite as ugly as the scene in Calixto Bieito’s Berlin Lohengrin.

The core idea of turning Elsa, the ‘Tugendreinen‘, as she is called at one point in the libretto, into a criminal is, of course, completely at odds with her musical characterisation. But the way the directors have altered the first scene, which illustrates the prelude for the new Vienna production, means that this “thriller” can be safely ignored. Elsa no longer fishes her brother’s hair out of the canal at the beginning of the opera, as she did in Salzburg, which makes her a suspect, but looks suspiciously at Ortrud alone. The fact that Gottfried is resurrected from the canal at the end
and condemns Elsa for her supposed crime, is all that remains of the crime thriller approach, but this is quite hard to see and could be overlooked. In short, it is now much less clear whether Elsa has committed a crime, and as a result, the character seems more coherent. The new cast in Vienna, however, is not entirely favourable – above all, they lack a good Elsa. In Salzburg, the role was sung by Jacqueline Wagner, whose voice seemed too small for the part in the first act, but who then improved from act to act, and at times brought quite beautiful, slender high notes to her portrayal of the role.

Now at the Vienna State Opera, Elsa is sung by the Swedish soprano Malin Byström, whose voice unfortunately lacks bright, clear, luminous high notes. An Elsa is not an Elsa without bright, clear high notes, especially in the first entrance ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen‘. And gradually one begins to wonder whether the opera world of today no longer offers a singer with the qualities of an Elisabeth Grümmer or a Gundula Janowitz of earlier decades. Especially as Camilla Nylund, who most recently sang Elsa in Berlin, is increasingly outgrowing the lyric repertoire. Anja Harteros – a little too hard in the role for my taste anyway – has not performed on stage for some time now, and Annette Dasch has never really been able to achieve crystalline brilliance in the upper register. On the other hand, I could well imagine that Elsa Dreisig, Christiane Karg or even Golda Schultz, who are currently the best lyric singers I know, could make the role more convincing. It would certainly be worth a try.

Much to my regret, I was also less than satisfied with the otherwise excellent Georg Zeppenfeld. Although he sang King Heinrich as clearly as ever, in the performance I attended he struggled quite a bit in the upper register. Hopefully this is not a sign of serious problems for the excellent Wagner singer, who has set standards as Hans Sachs and King Marke in particular.

The British tenor David Butt Philip in the title role reminded me strongly of the late Endrik Wottrich. Like him, he sings his part with great precision and power, but unfortunately without a beautiful tone or slender vocal lines. His narrow vibrato also causes him obvious problems, especially in the upper register, where he struggles through his part with much effort. His outward appearance as the only medieval knight in a modern society with long, curly hair (costumes: Anna Viebrock) à la Albrecht Dürer makes him a caricature, but thanks to the reduced characterisation Lohengrin doesn’t become quite the clownish figure he was in Salzburg.

Anja Kampe was a far more convincing Ortrud on the Vienna stage than the powerful-voiced Elena Pankratova in Salzburg. Although there is an unattractive sharpness creeping in at the top of her voice, she otherwise has a strong vocal presence as the demonic schemer, even if I personally prefer a mezzo-soprano with a darker timbre in the role. Martin Gantner gave a solid performance as Telramund, which I liked much better than his recent Dresden Kurwenal in Tristan. This time his baritone sounds big and deep, but at times his voice is more speaking than singing. Finally, the Serbian Attila Mokus sang the Heerrufer very solidly.

The musical world class of the evening was, as I said, provided by Christian Thielemann. The way in which he coordinates the large phalanx of brass instruments invisibly behind the stage with the others in the pit, with astonishing spatial (echo) effects during the great marches, is a masterpiece in itself. But so is the silvery, shimmering prelude with the violins, which within a few minutes transports you into a supernatural cosmos. The lyrical colours dominate this musical tour de force, as in the opera, but the abysmal and sinister element also unfolds in a unique way, especially in the dark orchestral prelude to the second act, interspersed with ghostly low single notes from the cellos and double basses. This is indeed a thriller in itself, just a different one from the one Morabito and Wieler wanted to tell. In the third act, a whole cornucopia of happy hormones pours over the animated, happy audience, who greet the conductor, revered like Karajan, with great cheers each time he returns from the interval. And at the end, they celebrate him like an emperor with endless applause.

Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

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