The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

ROH Bychkov Lohengrin - a magically led sense of wonder

Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Lohengrin for Royal Opera received notable revival this past spring, especially as conducted by Semyon Bychkov. This production has been reckoned a few times a bit stilted or two-dimensional, yet with occasionally good stage imagery for particular scenes.

Bychkov and Johan Botha as the swan knight, plus three other cast members of this recorded Lohengrin absolutely complete in Koln last year. Adrienne Pieczonka, the Elsa in Koln, will sing it for Houston Grand Opera this fall. She was replaced here by a new Italian lyric soprano by the name of Edith Haller.

Johan Botha was here a Lohengrin one hoped might possibly be a great interpreter of this part. It was just only with having such very high expectations that perhaps he disappointed us. Legato, musical sensitivity at his command, fine understanding of the part sounded all intact - evidently still there. He conveyed Lohengrin's selfless love for Elsa very convincingly.

Lohengrin's first entrance, without exaggerating, was sung at the level of a true piano, if perhaps less transfixing than might be perfectly ideal; we have not lately quite had any Sandor Konya in our midst; such is hard to come by anymore. Preparation by Bychkov orchestrally was the best heard for any moment in this thus far.

One anticipated with Botha some heroic ring to emanate following his entrance, but some clipping of rhythms and slight coasting through first ever heard warnings to Elsa ensued instead. In concerted ensemble leading up to duel with Telramund and declamation immediately following it, Botha commanded the line and revealed the metal he still has at his behest. Gentle entreaty to Elsa at “Der furchterliches Weib” in Act Two was endearing. Several soggy attacks and placing back however had Botha retreating from several challenges ensuing late in Act Two – for Elsa to possibly have had some basis for doubt after all.

Botha’s expressive bel canto in the bridal chamber scene and Grail narrative were highly convincing. He though felt he had to prove slightly more on a couple of (tubular produced) high A’s in passage toward end of scene with Elsa than necessary - in making final heartfelt pleas to Elsa to give her fateful question a rest. Proof however of a real artist here came with the great sadness, sense of loss with which Botha infused “Weh! Nun ist all unser Gluck dahin” and grace with which to articulate his decision to concede to Elsa - while before the King. “Zu lohnen” had fully appropriate solemnity - with the import of what “In fernem Land” reveals to us. With caressed tone, sense of wonder, just about all to remain came off scintillatingly. This was very certainly a swan knight made of flesh and blood - with full throttled, passionate “O Elsa! Nur eine Jahr” to make mention of for considerable time to come.

Edith Haller is an Elsa, not far from along lines of perhaps Eleanor Steber, of warm, lovely voice, good legato, but guarded reserve, coolness in reacting to all on Elsa's plate. Here was an Elsa at times not afraid to show some vulnerability, such as right after Lohengrin's Second Act entrance. There is argument too for Elsa from the get-go being slightly less the completely enraptured heroine than for instance Senta or Elisabeth. One still might seek more rapture with "Einsam in truben Tagen” than what some swallowed consonants and low notes betrayed instead. Intonation was problematic only with occasionally pushing the voice at the break and above.

A tentatively phrased “Euch luften” in Act Two similarly lacked something. Haller seemed slow to engage completely with Petra Lang’s Ortrud after they meet, but once re-entering to conclude their encounter, rose well to the challenge of singing alongside Lang, histrionically appoaching being a great Ortrud. Haller then acted very well the bridal chamber scene, subtly hinting at its agitation from its outset, but also eschewing development of excessive hysteria, as has been mistake of several other excessively lyric Elsa’s out there.

Falk Struckmann sounded still vocally intact toward presenting a definitive Telramund. His going through the paces at several venues as Wotan has taken its toll. The voice sounds hollowed out and slightly rough at the edges; steadier voice emerged here than necessarily expected. Struckmann benefited much from wonderful support Bychkov provided him almost the entire way through. One’s attention, listening to him, was on the words of Telramund, thus strongly conveying all the villain’s bitterness, guile, and malice. Vocally he is in better shape eleven years ago under Barenboim on disc, but he certainly held out promise that he has more years left to help occupy the world’s opera stages, perhaps heretofore as a fine Alberich. Such has been the case before with Theo Adam. Struckmann is still a welcome artist - recalling his fine Met Wozzeck, then Wanderer for La Scala during the late 1990’s.

Petra Lang (Ortrud) proved Struckmann’s wonderful partner in crime. One could not ask for an Ortrud more subtly acted than encountered here - quite a challenge to both the Telramund and Elsa on stage, especially so. “Entweihte Gotter” became too pushed, but intonation still remained mostly sound; thrill of her giving it her all though was most convincing.

Expectations have become too low toward hoping to praise two current singers as the two baddies in this. Who else has there been around to raise them lately? Ortrud to Lang is not so consciously evil as much as just out to defend what she observes being seized, encroached upon by medieval Christendom to which she and her world still hold exclusive rights. Lang gave big moment for Ortrud helping conclude Act Three practically enough to raise all the hair on one’s spine. Not quite Margarethe Klose perhaps or even Astrid Varnay at peak of her powers, but still something. Petra Lang has yet to sound more distinctive than how she did for this.

Kwangchul Youn was the warm toned Heinrich, authoritative in terms of always full cognizance of dramatic situation, if not a vocally formidable presence as such. He can not quite fade memories of Greindl or Frick at their formidable best, but with firm line and beautifully molded legato, he conveyed full concern for and well-husbanded authority over his fellow Brabantians. His lieder like sensitivity for text, gentle manner - recalling his palpable reaction to Lohengrin’s lowered countenance in making his final entrance - makes Youn still welcome for any Wagner.

Boaz Daniel – in place of Eike Wilm Schulte in Koln, was fine as the King’s Herald, including in marshaling forces for excitingly led choral work to follow his statements. It was only around middle C that one sensed mild uncertainty – just when pressing down near end of range in question.

As is still quite common, the second half of “In fernem Land” was cut, as also was minute for Lohengrin starting with “O, Elsa! Was hast du mir angethan?” and ensemble to follow. Bychkov conveyed sense of such passages being essential by how he conducted what then little remained - as opposed to leaving so much sounding clunky - usually the case when these cuts are taken. Two considerations however remain. How does Johan Botha plan on sustaining Tannhauser, as announced, when this signature role is never abridged toward relieving strain of having to sing it? On the upside, however, Bychkov revealed the impetus behind the dark side of Lohengrin very well, while even having to make undesirable cuts, but also still maintaining sense of Lohengrin being a ‘zauberoper’ - written in close advent of starting work on the Ring.

There could longer no doubt by end of this how much Bychkov loves this music; his interview comments for BBC were alternatively witty and very sincere. Here is a musician I have always found enigmatic, but still with definitely some fine qualities for working in opera. The opening chords of the Prelude to Act One made one case in point - the sense of not quite being an entirely clear beat for the chords to come in quite one hundred percent together; once same music recurred later in the opera, there was little mistaking how together everything was. A little wearing the heart on the sleeve led to some clotting of textures in ensembles during finales to both the first two acts, but ensemble therein was still sufficiently cohesive to convey fine, fully engaging sense of excitement.

Bychkov’s support for singers, his ear for color and balances from the Royal Opera orchestra was definitely remarkable, especially through practically entire stretch of Act Three. Exchange between Herald and knights in scene that often drags things was visceral, with fantastic entries achieved for the Royal Opera chorus - with it still ringing in my ears the racket this group made under Albrecht for Dutchman a month ago. There was though still something about choral work that sounded beyond what any visitor can fix – wobbly sopranos during bridal chorus and unsteady tenors as well. Time presses then to call for some housecleaning and perhaps for change of leadership for the ROH chorus. This company, after all, has been led before by Colin Davis, Haitink, Solti; it at least should want to continue its strong international reputation.

Orchestral work here further evinced Bychkov in control of his forces – to a very nearly full extent. Pacing was consistently excellent, moving forward, with space provided to for beautifully shape lyrical lines that infuse so very much of Lohengrin. Contrast between sound worlds was also very clear – between that representing the ancient paganism of Ortrud and Telramund and that of still nascent flowering medieval spirit of the time of action. Coloring to a highly chromatic sequence of harmonies – hushed choral reaction to what the two pagans have stirred up – momentarily had one think ahead to Parsifal, even to Scriabin.

The sense of words being best guide to pacing Wagner, as Bychkov stated in interview, was constantly present, and within such sense of a leap to through-composed means being made that much of Lohengrin conveys. With strings down to double pianissimo at one place in the Grail narrative, line still electrically persisted through them. Solo clarinet reminiscence of the joy of the initial moments of marital bliss, according to all both logic and feeling invested therein, was heart-rending, devastating. Should we hear more from Bychkov at Royal Opera? While probably the finest work I have yet heard from him anywhere, the answer should be clear.

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