A new pair of DVDs of Wagner’s Lohengrin from Decca is of great
interest. They bear comparison both with the version starring Placido
Domingo and Cheryl Studer and with that starring Peter Hofmann and Eva
Marton (plus a stunning Leonie Rysanek as Ortrud). But whereas those two
earlier renditions were traditional in staging, this one is different,
and needs some explanation.
The opera, meant to take place in
medieval northern Europe, is here set in the 1930s, though Lohengrin’s
blue T-shirt, not to mention a video camera at one point, look out of
place even for that. A fascist state is suggested, with guards holding
back the populace (loyal enough, you would have thought) and be-suited
thugs protecting the villainous Telramund. More significant is the
construction throughout most of the opera of an onstage house. This is
Lohengrin and Elsa’s future love nest, and you know in advance that it
will eventually be brought to ruin, though how this happens comes as a
This kind of treatment could ruin an intensely Romantic
opera like Lohengrin, but it’s carried off with professionalism and just
manages to work. Most important is that the musical values of the
production are so high that it would have taken more than even this to
throw it off track.
The Lohengrin of the young Jonas
Kaufmann made the headlines, and he is indeed outstanding throughout.
But the Elsa of Anja Harteros proves to be every bit his equal, while
the Telramund of Wolfgang Koch is so dynamic he threatens to outshine
even the two leads. Michaela Schuster as Ortrud is also of stellar
quality, as are Christof Fischesser as Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitrin as
the Herald. This, in other words, is a Lohengrin without a weak link,
and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and chorus, with Kent Nagano
conducting, are also outstanding.
So if you want a modern version
of this opera, with the highest musical qualities, this version from the
Munich Opera House can be unreservedly recommended. If part of the
attraction of Lohengrin for you is what Thomas Mann praised as its
unique evocation of the medieval dream, an idealized yet vividly
concrete world of mystic faith and heraldic shields, then you will be
wise to stay with one of the earlier versions.
The camera work of
this Lohengrin is exceptionally clear and strong. Kaufmann in tears at
having finally to reveal his name and origin, Harteros neurotically
pacing back and forth, Nikitin issuing the leader’s orders through a
1930s microphone — all are caught in close-up and with great precision.
The video director is Karina Fabich.
The controversial staging is
by Richard Jones, the enfant terrible of British theater and opera whose
production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Covent Garden in the mid-1990s was
greeted, on its opening night, with howls of derision. He seems to have
more nearly got it right this time, though purists will continue to
As for Kaufmann, he was invited to sing Lohengrin at
Bayreuth shortly after this Munich debut, and will sing Siegmund at the
Met next month in the second installment of Robert LePage’s Ring cycle.