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.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ORF: Bayreuth Festspiele - Musically disastrous Lohengrin opens festival. Andris Nelsons (debut). Hans Neuenfels (new production). 25.07.10

Lohengrin is said to be the darkest story among Wagner’s operas, music dramas; it is most of all in rejection of the light to descend upon Brabant from Montsalvat or ambassador thereof. In light of so much that is politically, socially correct and must even at times strenuously so to avoid anything Teutonic in quality, certainly that might purport superiority along those lines, Lohengrin may only barely be possible anymore. Oh, certainly a higher criticism stance is welcome, but what purpose is there in hearing Lohengrin, experiencing it in the hall, if one can really no longer hear it? Andris Nelsons’ tempos were somewhat breezy; standard cuts taken toward end of Act Three, all came in at slightly over three hours and twenty minutes. Such pacing usually indicates an approach to Wagner steeped in earlier Romanticism or Weber – Nelsons’ tempo choices that just about alone made this impression.

First impression arriving out of Bayreuth however was the highly eccentric staging of Hans Neuenfels – much of it looking as though cut out of comic strips. You had the cornucopia of swan appearances (flying overhead all skin and bones above the rafters, on platter as major entrée for wedding feast, etc.) and men of Brabant costumed as rats - all as taking place in an animal research laboratory. From sound of it alone, it could have just as easily taken place alongside a steel mill in the Ruhr,inside aircraft hangar or along the autobahn in-between. Hearing this could make one speculate whether or not Neuenfels could have heard how this Lohengrin would sound before making any decision on how to stage it.

Best news about this Lohengrin was – from lower end of the vocal spectrum – casting of the Herald (Samuel Youn) and King (Georg Zeppenfeld). Youn, decked out in pouffed up wig and tux, sang with solid, fervor, delivering his lines with fine certainty, focus, to extent of making one wonder why he could not have been here the Telramund instead. One could note the Herald’s address to men of Brabant in immediate advent of Elsa’s first entrance, how Youn started it incisively and naturally developed superb fullness for its closing lines. Together with very driven tempo for middle of Act 2, Youn had Andris Nelsons most of all to contend with, but he very capably stood his ground nevertheless. Exaggerated timpani crescendos to segue in his first address and shouting contest Nelsons made orchestrally to segue in his second address to the knights characterized all occurring here.

Georg Zeppenfeld only slightly eclipsed Youn as best member of this cast. His was clearly the most vocally secure and three-dimensional portrayal in this the entire way through. His response of sounding somber, reticent at first to Telramund’s first round of accusations early on, how it melted into legato spun out tone of warmth and compassion, as if to insinuate at Telramund possibly being wrong or in error, was most affecting. Same variety in demeanor marked his first address to Elsa, and sadness equally felt in his becoming aware of something having gone horribly wrong during Act Three. Zeppenfeld’s briefly reassuring address to Lohengrin opened one of several shafts of light to pervade so much amorphousness during the finale to Act Two. Nothing to faze Zeppenfeld, Nelsons even half unwittingly attempted to undercut him for his public address to emcee face-off between Lohengrin and Telramund, Mediocre preparation, soggy attack and glib coasting through specific harmonic progressions in the brass indicated as much.

Hans Joachim Ketelsen made a highly uneven Telramund. Ketelsen sang much of this as though both out of vocal stamina or energy - as though marking the part. First entrance, with Ketelsen, while tonally lean, presenting Telramund as attempting well to put best face forward, was good. With things vocally tensing up more for Ketelsen, this became a Telramund of almost as much an Alberich (or even Mime?) as anything else. Nelsons’s hefty accompaniment just further emphasized how threadbare Ketelsen sounded. Ketelsen, past very shaky scene with Ortrud, recovered poise for entering during finale to Act Two, but even then it did not take long for things to slide down again to being on verge of withering away. Nelsons occasionally, obviously had to pick up pace underneath Ketelsen to pull him through.

Evelyn Herlitzus, unsteady as Ortrud, provided some clue that this performance indeed came from Bayreuth, with her very keen attention to text. Her inability to provide any consistent vocal evenness to anything gave the sorceress hardly more significance than that of a character part. Anything more than an octave above middle C tended to wobble, even squall. On good measure of adrenaline, she managed her brief invocation to the pagan gods in Act Two quite well – none of it at all pretty to hear. Nelsons unusually made room for her to deliver Ortrud’s gloating chutzpah, triumphalism with ringing high A-sharp at opera's conclusion.

Annette Dasch was the shaky, always too vulnerable sounding Elsa. Musical sensitivity apart, it is hard to construe a more faceless, often vacuous Elsa than this. Dasch has basically a lyric instrument that wisely she restrains herself from pushing too far – suitable for Mozart, Desdemona perhaps (i.e. in recent Otello in Dallas), but without likely providing even close to any last word as to how Elsa or similar part should go. Tone would turn white, through the break and approaching the top - and whenever pushed at all, hooty, then strident and out of tune. She somehow however managed to put such issues aside for most of the bridal chamber scene. Most confounding was sense that this Elsa may not have been more than skin deep infatuated with either dream or presence of the swan knight. The breezy tempos Nelsons gave 'Einsam in truben Tagen" and 'Euch luften" did not lessen risk of this Elsa coming across very generic. Her ‘Mein Ritter’ for instance near end of Act Two sounded more despondent than worried, worried what is most commonly expected – creating doubt as to there being any reason to carry on at all with proceedings.

There was then Jonas Kaufmann’s overrated interpretation of the title role (costumed as your working class man off the street). It is seldom I have heard maestro and leading soloist in opera sound so much on path of mutually assured destruction of work right before them as have Kaufmann and Nelsons now. No doubt, Kaufmann has ample voice for assignment here and on a good half a dozen occasions proved the well forged metal to deliver the goods on most often high A’s, coming off the fight with Telramund and to close ‘In fernem Land.’

Where went however the lyricism? Where was anything as such to last longer than for half a phrase? Early on during Act Three, he sufficiently relaxed his voice to provide some light; most of the rest of the way, this should have had most anybody pleading to have somebody caliber of Petr Hofmann (once of almost comparable sex symbol rock star status in the operatic world) back as Lohengrin. On occasion Hofmann would provide good shape, lyricism if not always an ingratiating sound.

The coagulated tone - a most peculiar placed back mezzo voce - from Kaufmann for first entrance and, much later, ‘Mein lieber Schwan’ was nothing to be coveted. Nelsons and Kaufmann were practically equals in the department of forced, projected, and pushed up sound, devoid of sufficient basis underneath. In fact, Kaufmann’s way of addressing Elsa at times, for instance during final scene of Act Two and during the bridal chamber scene took on uncharacteristic quality of a mean upper lip – ‘mean old Lohengrin’ or ‘mean old nameless dude’, as though Kaufmann could have dubbed in for Franco Citti (from early Pasolini flicks) as the swan knight.

Expression of romantic ardor for Elsa sounded more often affected than it did genuine. Legato or heroism of any depth got just about thoroughly compromised for ‘In fernem Land’; Kaufmann’s brassy hectoring of the knight’s closing lines right upon point of taking off was icing on the cake. There were intonation problems - warning of further trouble down the road, should Kaufmann not soon switch back to singing more lyrically, more legato soon. No amount of bench pressing can compensate for this lack. Nelsons, very hard, jerked descending triplets in lower strings, brass off the Act One fight with Telramund – maestro in battlestar galactica mode - toward goading Kaufmann to mightily squeeze out all he could muster to declare victory.

Of what definition is any darkness in Lohengrin if all light therein is so obscured? The projected opening of Act Two revealed how Nelsons could so casually shirk off attention to Wagner’s dynamic markings. His ear for harmonic chromaticism toward evoking things mysterious, such that shows the way into Ring to follow was weak. Hush over the chorus as dark clouds begin looming over the horizon, put there by the two baddies, near close of Act Two, was hardly at all any, starting out at forte, moving too quickly to fortissimo – not what Wagner marked. The very interesting harmonic change among diminished sevenths eventually from C Minor to E-Flat Minor, for what import or overtones this must have, went completely for naught, as did two important brighter harmonic transitions during for instance 'In fernem Land.'

Organ entrance near end of Act Two sounded devoid of resonance, with chorus entering too loud, allowing in place of any true crescendo hard jerked accents to provide artificial level of excitement in its place. By this point, a general feeling of malaise, even of slight nausea had to have crept over anybody musically sensitive in the least, even at grandiose place such as this. Things got pushed so, that in place of stirring, they culminated in something verging on clotted instead. Orchestra and chorus were occasionally little together at all; there were also several shouting matches of strings over brass – sufficient indictment several very simple harmonic progressions completely out of tune from the brass.

Several vocally incited instances of lyricism, plus that for fine principal clarinet midway through Act Three and calm opening to the bridal chamber scene were more the exception than the rule. Even the strings betrayed toughness toward achieving hopefully fine sonorities during the prelude to Act One – and overt aggression for prelude to Act Three. The stirring quality of repeat note triplets underneath Elsa’s early reassurances to Ortrud (decently sung – as affectionate toward Ortrud as she ever was toward Lohengrin) were, as somewhat hammered out, denied what stirring quality this writing naturally has. Equally unmagical was similar underpinning of ‘Athmest’ - Kaufmann very affected here - during the bridal chamber scene.

What of the cowl to partly cover the pit at Bayreuth? At least, Georg Solti in 1982 did not have the ego to ultimately assess it as somethig to be so challenged as Nelsons, should Nelsons be willing to be or get invited back. Certainly, the stage design had as much a chilly steel glint about it as could be projected. It certainly had as much a look about it to match the quality of sound provided as other way around. Rhetorical conjecture that this is, it still had me wondering.

There has been hardly anything historically informed or up-to-date either about this most of all musically wrong-headed take on Wagner's Lohengrin. Except for several rare instances, it all sounded devoid of anything to intimate at Bellinian lyricism altogether. Even Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light is capable of sounding closer to indicate light from Montsalvat than this did. In how cold this Lohengrin sounded, there may have been some expressive point to make, but there are far more subtle ways of going about it by which the music can be much fuller participant in the undertaking. There was certainly nothing here to overcome recent charge by progressives of Bayreuth turning stuffy, stilted – with the photo-ops for Angela Merckel and first man – and of two towering great-granddaughters carrying their own brand of dilettantism.

Musically should Wagner not be able to work any better than this, there is one bit of advice the wise bard offered – that in mind of preserving historical posterity nobody will ever heed. How anyone is to remember from this how Lohengrin should sound seems daunting. I recall here in Houston last fall having left a Lohengrin, of which I was so unsure at its conclusion what I had just attended for stretch of four hours. This from Bayreuth proved still less satisfying.

One can only hope Bayreuth will find somebody less green at it than Nelsons next time. There are always the historical archives to draw upon, the recordings of past festivals to which to listen, but there should also be some hope for some musical legacy to persist at Bayreuth, vague as it may sound, but that leaves Wagner sounding still slightly better than anonymous. If anything, this Nelsons Lohengrin sounded more ‘storm-trooper’ than taking Lohengrin along more traditional lines.

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