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WAGNER: Lohengrin

DVD Button Netrebko, Herlitzius; Beczala, Konieczny, Zeppenfeld, Welton; Chorus of the Dresden State Opera, Staatskapelle Dresden, Thielemann. Deutsche Grammophon 0440 073 5319 6, 215 mins., subtitled

Starry Night

Great singers and a fabulous conductor are the draw of this Lohengrin.

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Grail-safe: Herlitzius, Netrebko, Beczala and cast in Dresden
© Daniel Koch/Semperoper Dresden
Recordings Lohengrin Cover 1217
Critics Choice Button 1015

THIS CELEBRATED 2016 Dresden Lohengrin is a throwback to an earlier era of operatic performance, when a confluence of top talent, rather than displays of directorial innovation, drew international attention. Here, the cast—led by Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala—and the magisterial conducting of Christian Thielemann are the focus and raisons d’être. The 1983 Christine Mielitz production is dowdy in both appearance and approach. Its palette of earth tones registers as an artifact of its time; its monumental unit set, representing a cavernous, baronial reception hall, doesn’t quite suggest any of the opera’s settings. (In particular, the bridal chamber seems like an awfully drafty place to consummate a marriage—no wonder the union starts off so disastrously!) Mielitz oddly moves the action forward to the nineteenth century, a peculiar context for the work’s clash between Christian belief and pagan magic. But the production’s inadequacies fade in light of the performance. Perhaps this was intentional: its anonymity allows the exemplary cast to inhabit the piece without needing to adhere to a directorial agenda. 

The DVD booklet says Thielemann personally persuaded Netrebko to take on her first Wagner role. Her work on these discs justifies the faith the conductor showed in her. Her latter-day voice has the perfect weight for the role, still retaining suggestions of youthful lyricism but now scaled to truly Wagnerian dimensions; the voice’s radiance and power make it an aural embodiment of Wagner’s heroine. The majestic high B that caps the bridal-chamber scene conveys the epic dimensions of Elsa’s passion and distress. Netrebko is as fascinating to watch as always: the drama’s conflicts seem to course through her body, and her remorse in the final scene is heartbreaking. 

In this performance, Elsa is clearly Lohengrin’s protagonist; her psychological odyssey constitutes the work’s dramatic core. The knight himself is an unchangeable object—from first to last, an embodiment of virtue too pure for inner conflict. Perhaps that’s why Thielemann cast a lyric tenor in the role—a singer who could convey Lohengrin’s goodness through unimpeachably beautiful tone. Beczala, another first-time Wagnerite, is mostly successful, though in a number of places the vocal line is obviously uncongenial; his denunciation of Telramund on the church steps, for instance, finds him audibly pushed beyond his limits. But the tenor’s work in the last act justifies the casting tactic, and the concentrated sweetness of his singing in the narration conjures a paradise irrevocably lost.

The supporting cast is worthy of its lead couple. Evelyn Herlitzius is an effective Ortrud. Her soprano is astringent but powerful, under firm control even in the role’s most vehement moments. Only in her final expostulation does her harsh tone outweigh the force of her delivery. She is unerringly effective in her demeanor, frightening in her fury at “Entweihte Götter” but even more so in moments of calm, her doleful presence infused with evil.

Tomasz Konieczny makes Telramund’s moral weakness so clearly an intrinsic character flaw that you could almost pity the wretched man. But in the public scenes, the solid strength of his declamation is that of a formidable villain. Through it all, Konieczny offers firmly supported, artfully phrased singing, devoid of “Bayreuth bark.” As King Heinrich, Georg Zeppenfeld conveys relative youth in both voice and demeanor. His is a vigorous monarch, ready to engage in battle. Derek Welton is a fine Herald, his voice fresh and sturdy. 

The declamatory public scenes in Lohengrin can be trying, with passages of bombast that need to be endured on the way to the opera’s lyrical riches. But under Thielemann’s baton, they register fully as music. It helps that the Staatskapelle brass retain their burnished warmth even at their most martial. But it is really the conductor’s command of the broad scale of the work that makes these scenes succeed; they serve as buttresses for the whole enormous structure, reinforcing Lohengrin’s overarching lyricism. Thielemann proves the dominant theatrical force in this Lohengrin,shaping the performance to reveal not just a beautiful piece of music but a tragic drama. —Fred Cohn 



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