C. Watson, Ludwig; Thomas, Berry,
E. Wächter, Talvela; Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Böhm.
No libretto. Orfeo C 862 133 D (3)
Orfeo has released in mono (but very clear) sound this aural record of a famous Wagnerian event that at the time defined "world class" — the Vienna State Opera premiere, on May 16, 1965, of a Lohengrin directed and designed by Wieland Wagner and led by Karl Böhm. The all-star cast includes elite Austrian, American, Finnish and German singers — Claire Watson, Christa Ludwig, Jess Thomas, Walter Berry, Eberhard Wächter and Martti Talvela, in his house debut at age thirty.
Karl Böhm never brought Lohengrin into the studio. Here, he offers a forthright reading rather than a poetic, lingering one, sometimes feeling rushed (as do some of his contemporaneous Bayreuth Ring performances). He trims choral material from Acts II and III. Two months after Wieland's death, in October 1966, a production based on his European stagings came to the Met, with Ludwig and Berry among the principals under Böhm. That proved to be the only Lohengrin any of these three artists did in America. Thomas sang just two Swan Knights at the Met (in 1964), but he tackled the role at San Francisco Opera a few months after this Viennese premiere. Ludwig and Thomas can both be heard on Rudolf Kempe's magical, magisterial EMI studio set. The American tenor, always resourceful and intelligent with phrasing and text, sounds in more attractive and expansive voice here than in the studio. It's some of his best recorded work. Ludwig makes a phenomenally venomous Ortrud, inflecting both tone and text with theatrical savvy from her very first lines. Few recorded Ortruds share her tonal beauty or flexibility. As always, this wide-ranged artist — who was flirting with becoming a full-time dramatic soprano around the time this Lohengrin was taped — emerges most exciting precisely when her voice is just at the edge of overdrive. The Viennese crowd rewards her fervent "Entweihte Götter!" with frenzied applause.
American soprano Claire Watson made a great European career, based principally in Munich; both there and in Vienna, her Elsa occasioned some of the greatest reviews of her career. Born in New York, Watson appeared with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago but sang in her native city only in concert; her sole American Elsas were in New Orleans in 1976. Watson was accounted a moving, attractive stage performer; here she sings with fine artistry and beautifully girlish but sometimes rather white tone, not quite attaining the vocal level of her highest competition — Elisabeth Grümmer, Eleanor Steber and Gundula Janowitz. Watson and Ludwig do rise excitingly to the "battle of the queens" in Act II. Throughout, Watson seems at odds with Böhm's tempos: he often rushes her (though never Thomas or Ludwig). She sang just one more Viennese performance with Böhm — ever.
Berry's wide range and keen intelligence in phrasing make his Telramund unusually effective, placing him among this tough role's more sonorous, inflected and credible exponents. Talvela's huge, projectile bass makes Heinrich sound potent. At first, his high attacks occasionally push sharp — but what an instrument! Wächter remained a Viennese matinée idol long after 1965, but the vocal reasons for his fame were already clouding by the time of this Lohengrin. Wächter's Herald — first-class for Matačić at Bayreuth (1959) — starts rather hoarse and tremulous. In sum, this is a fine "second" Lohengrin — after Kempe and the Cluytens (1958) and Matačić Bayreuth sets — though probably a must for those particularly interested in one of the great musicians involved.
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