I know some of you regular readers may find this incredibly hard to believe, but I was something of a smartass in my high school and college days. I especially liked prodding those members of the intelligentsia who deigned themselves a cut above us mere relatively above average folk. For some reason, musical prodigies irked me more than, say, literary types, and I used to try giving them a little (pretty easy, I thought) brainbuster by asking them, "What very specific thing do Mendelssohn and Wagner have in common?" I thought the answer would be obvious to anyone who really thought about it--Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" (AKA "Here Comes the Bride") from Lohengrin is the typical Wedding March that brides enter their ceremony to, and Mendelssohn's similarly themed work from A Midsummer Night's Dream is the traditional wedding recessional (think The Newlywed Game theme, if you need a little help). After happily stumping several musical geniuses, I was thrown for a loop one day when a theory professor of mine ruminated for a moment and then said, "The Dresden cadence." Score one for the opposition.
Wagner's Lohengrin may have entered the public lexicon largely due to that famous Bridal music, but the fact is, this is really one of the German composer's most easily accessible works, at least musically. Full of ravishing melodies and stunningly complex choral passages, Lohengrin has a firm rooting in (admittedly transitory) tonality that probably makes it an easier dip in the Wagnerian waters than his bigger, relatively more complex works. Despite technical difficulties which make it one of Wagner's most challenging scores, instrumentally and vocally, Lohengrin nonetheless offers a direct opposite to some of the more opaque works of the master, with soaring lines etching themselves forever on the listener's memory. If musically this piece is easier to swallow whole than other Wagner opuses, textually it's so dense and full of varying ways to approach its supposedly occult meanings that productions often fall into the trap of stylizing it to the point where, music be damned, the entire thing becomes incomprehensible.
Luckily, this smart and spare Baden-Baden production (on 2 BDs) offers just enough psychological underpinnings to give the characters a little "real" life (at least as much as they're ever going to get in a Wagnerian opera) while presenting a striking, if minimal, production design that allows the point of the piece--that would be ravishing music--to remain front and center at all times. Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who consistently mounts some of the most intelligent productions of classic opera, is here working at the peak of his form, utilizing the piece's very penchant toward stasis to excellent effect. Utilizing brilliant sets (especially in the first act) by architect Stephan Braunfels, Lehnhoff achieves monumental tableaux that manage to evoke mystic mythical realms while keeping the action grounded in some semblance of reality.
Lohengrin, for the uninitiated, is Wagner's reworking of a relatively minor character from the Grail and Arthurian legends. He is something of a cipher in the opera, a heroic character whose abilities are hinted at and only intermittently displayed. The real emotional focus of the opera is Elsa, a princess who has supposedly killed her young brother, the heir to the throne. Elsa lives largely in a word of imagination and when she tells the court where she's being tried that she's in communication with a knight who will save her, no one believes her of course. Enter Lohengrin. He makes Elsa promise to never ask where he comes from, what his abilities are or what his name is. In return, he'll marry her after her enemies are vanquished. Anyone with an ear for operatic trauma will know that after a brief moment of married bliss, cracks appear, leading to tragedy.
Lehnhoff obviously posits Lohengrin as a stand-in for Wagner himself, especially in the second act, when he has the "knight" sitting at a piano, composing. I had to wonder, considering Lohengrin's exhortations against Elsa asking any questions of where he derives his inspiration, how Wagner's wife Cosima, not exactly known for being a shrinking violet and a woman who considered herself her husband's muse, would have thought about this comparison.
This production shies away from a Middle Ages motif and tries to blend modernity with a certain stateliness. It works almost all of the time, though I for one could have done without Lohengrin's shiny silver sharkskin suit and gelled and glittered hair-do. Some of the other costumes and makeup are a bit on the overkill side (note Ortrud's weird punk hair, for example), overall the production has an extremely striking visual presentation that lends itself surprisingly well to Wagner's intense music.
The good news is this is a magnificently sung and played Lohengrin. The title character is performed splendidly by Klaus Florian Vogt, who made his American debut at the Met in this role. With a beautifully transparent upper register and impeccable control, Vogt manages the leaps and bounds of Wagner's vocal lines with apparent ease. Solveig Kringelborn's Elsa is also lovely, full throated yet lithe, with just the right balance of naïvete and elegance. Kent Nagano, always one of my favorite conductors, brings his patented reserve and formidable intelligence to the baton, with some deeply burnished brass work and lovely, translucent strings.
If you've been afraid to test the Wagnerian waters (and, really, I'd be the last to blame you), Lohengrin is a great place to start. This production makes it all the easier, with an arresting physical production and top tier talent both onstage and in the pit. If you're a Wagner aficionado, you'll be fascinated and thrilled by this brilliant production, whether or not it contains the Dresden Cadence.
Lohengrin's AVC 1.78:1 image is extremely sharp and well defined, though anyone looking for eye-popping visuals is probably going to be disappointed. This is a very spare production, with clean lines and no outrageous colors. What is there is crisp and brilliant, with excellent contrast and very deep, inky blacks.
Both the PCM 2.0 and 5.1 mixes are superb, with excellent balance between the orchestra and singers and some especially fine separation in the complex contrapuntal choral moments (the closing to Act I is a highlight). Wagner's immense orchestral forces receive near perfect reproduction here, with a full bodied dynamic range and brilliant fidelity. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
An above average featurette documenting the production's genesis and staging fills out the first BD, which contains Act I. Also included is an illustrated synopsis and cast gallery. As usual with these Opus Arte releases, there's also an informative insert booklet.
This is an impeccably fine Lohengrin--magnificently sung and played, and with a blessed lack of directorial hubris hanging over it (see my recent review of Wagner's Das Rheingold for the inverse of this situation). With an austere, but very effective, production design, and standout performances by singers and orchestra, you'd be hard pressed to find a better performance among recent productions of this massive piece. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet