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Dasch, Resmark; Vogt, Grochowski, Groissböck; Rundfunk Chor, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Janowski. Text and translation. Pentatone PTC 5186 403 (3)
The performance history of Lohengrin has been a curious one. A Top Ten opera for most of its existence, in the past generation it seemed to be taking a light nap. Suddenly, in just the past few years, it is back in a big way. Four performances of interest — two audio-only versions, conducted by Semyon Bychkov and James Levine, and two DVD productions, from Munich and Bayreuth — have been released. Now Marek Janowski’s version, part of the conductor’s planned traversal of the ten canonical Wagner operas in live concert recordings, offers a performance unlike any of the others. Janowski’s Lohengrin is distinctive in two ways. One is the choral singing. No opera exposes weakness in the choral contingent the way Lohengrin does. The men are frequently divided into four parts rather than two, and sometimes the men even split into eight parts, as the Saxons and Brabants square off. Freed of any staging (or in the case of Robert Wilson’s Met production, of having to stand stock still), the men of Berlin’s Rundfunk Chor demonstrably have no weaknesses. The other distinctive element here is Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin. He sings with cherubic, choirboy purity; his entrance sounds like Gregorian chant, and his lines to Elsa in Act II have an unusual, perhaps even unique, comforting quality. For a time, it’s effective, since Lohengrin is a being from another world, but ultimately it seems that Elsa could best him in any competition of his choice, and we end up wishing for a knight of more unassailable strength. But just about anything is preferable to yelling, and Vogt never, ever yells.
Lohengrin was Wagner’s last pre-Ring opera. The first section of the Elsa–Ortrud duet — the part where Elsa is still upstairs on the balcony — is particularly indicative of the direction Wagner was heading, and Janowski catches the insinuation and the slipperiness of the music. Janowski’s prelude is notable for the way in which the persistent eighth notes a few minutes into the piece seem to be portraying the eternal workings of the Grail or the rays of light emanating from it. He makes an unexpected, effective parallel with the similar figuration underneath Elsa’s entrance into the minster in Act II that now seems obvious (it has to do with purity) but that nobody seems to have made before. Janowski produces an especially vital string tremolo at moments such as Elsa’s desperation just before Lohengrin’s initial appearance; string players don’t really want to work this hard, so they clearly find Janowski inspiring. But his brisk tempos don’t work so well in this opera. Act I is fine as a setup. The action and urgency, as opposed to contemplative qualities, relate to the plot. But Act III — all of it — is too quick. Even prepared for how fast it is going to be on a second try, it is hard to hear it as anything other than a scramble. Janowski’s timing for Act III is identical to Kent Nagano’s in Munich and Levine’s at the Met, but Janowski has opened the standard theater cut. He plays one hundred seventy measures more music than they do in the same amount of time.
Janowski has not been building a repertory company of singers for his Wagner project, so the series is turning into a survey of today’s practitioners. As Ortrud, Susanne Resmark confirms the impression she made in Kasper Holten’s Copenhagen Ring and Tannhäuser: she certainly has the power for the roles she sings, but her voice is unwieldy and her tuning above the staff approximate. Annette Dasch has a hard time projecting any character as Elsa, and her top B is pinched. But it is easy to wonder how much better she might have been had Janowski given her enough room to keep her bearings in Act III. The Telramund, Gerd Grochowski, is unsteady and careless about pitches in Act I but considerably better in Act II. Günther Groissböck is a reliable King Heinrich, one who shows the importance of religious deference to Lohengrin. Markus Brück is fine as the Herald, but it is fascinating how so many other baritones have made so much of this part, which looks like the antithesis of an operatic role on the page but turns out not to be so.
The riches in the new crop of Lohengrins are spread around. The Munich production — Richard Jones’s Elsa-as-architect conception — did not win many fans in the theater but plays beautifully on video, helped no end by the glamorously sung and acted performances of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in the leading roles. Levine’s Met performance from 1998 features string playing of shocking accomplishment; clearly an unholy pact was involved. Levine also has Ben Heppner, the Lohengrin of our time and the singer perhaps uniquely qualified to deliver Levine’s conception of the role. But the recording is knocked out of contention by the Met audience in its everyday mode of mindless coughing. Ultimately, everyone should hear Bychkov’s recording. It is brilliantly conducted, as if accompanying a very specific staging. It features Adrianne Pieczonka, the rare Elsa who can meet Wagner’s considerable demands while still sounding pure and youthful. Pentatone’s recorded sound for Janowski is less flattering to the strings than it is in the other entries in his series, but great attention has been paid to the disposition of the offstage instruments. The wedding march starts in the wings, as it is supposed to, and when the pit orchestra strings join in, the effect is as magical as Wagner wished. The great composers really knew what they were doing.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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