Lohengrin

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LOHENGRIN

Composer: Richard Wagner

Libretto: Richard Wagner

Based on medieval stories by Wolfram von Eschenbach and others

First Produced: Staatskapelle Weimar 1850

Company: Baden-Baden 2006

Director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff

Sets: Stephan Braunfels

Costumes: Bettina Walter

Lighting: Duane Schuler

Video Director: Thomas Grimm

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

EuropaChor Akademie Mainz

Chorus of the Opèra national de Lyon

Conductor: Kent Nagano

 

Cast:

Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt

Elsa: Solveig Kringelborn 

Friedrich of Telramund: Tom Fox

Ortrud: Waltraud Meier  

Heinrich von Vogler: Hans-Peter König

King’s Herald: Roman Trekel

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50 x 2

Opera: 19.43 + 41.46 (60.89 GB)

Bit Rate: High (30~38 Mbps)

German LPCM 5.1

German LPCM 2.0

Subtitles: English, German, Italian, French & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 207 minutes

Opus Arte 2010

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A-

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: A

Audio: A-

Bonus Features: A-

Recommendation: A


 

Comment

Lohengrin was Richard Wagner’s third opera after several early attempts at the form, one of which, Rienzi, was completed, but rarely performed.  With Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in 1843 and Tannhäuser, 1845, behind him, and his reputation firmly positioned, Wagner continued to explore Germanic legends in what I feel is his most psychologically penetrating work. Lohengrin is taken from 12th and 13th century popular stories related to the Grail and its various heroes, including those of Arthurian legend, that represented its mysteries and values. Wagner’s Lohengrin explores the relationship of Love and Faith that recalls the Orfeus legend and dramatizes the relationship of human love to knowledge of God.  Given today’s religious reactionary times, there’s hardly an opera from its 19th century Golden Period that is more relevant or more revealing.


       


While it may be a 21st century idea that the opposite of Faith is not Doubt, but Certainty (thank you, Alan Jones), in the old days, Doubt ruled as the work of the Dark Lord.  Doubt was thought of as just short of Heresy.  There is a reason why the term “unshakable” is linked with Faith - because Faith is, in fact, shakable.  We humans, especially in the West, like to feel we have a special relationship with a Creator, but that relationship and its attendant expectations, are at the mercy of the very qualities that make us human.  If it was a questioning mind that brought God into being, it is that same mind that asks if it was all a dream.


Perhaps that should be “Dream,” for it is in a dream that Elsa’s hero first makes his presence known, just as it was for Jacob, Mary and a teenage girl from Domrémy in the early 15th century.  In Jeanne d’Arc case, she was not asleep, nor was Jonah and many who claim to have spoken with a messenger of God.  Visions? The Unconscious? A Close Encounter? An undigested bit of beef?  Whatever the case, whoever is behind the curtain, it is clear that we continue to struggle with voices that seem not to be our own.  And the most pervasive and magical of these is Love.


       


Whatever else is going on, in passion’s grip of ecstatic love, we are not in command of ourselves as we once knew ourselves to be.  The transformation is at once powerful and mysterious.  In Elsa’s case, she takes her vision of her hero as heaven-sent.  If he were to materialize what else could he be, having been called to her defense against charges of fratricide by the most respected noble in the land!  Her innocence has no other protector.  In her case, there is only Trial by Combat.  The great noble, Friedrich of Talramund, is prepared to defend the truth of his accusation against whomever. 


The visiting king, Heinrich, calls for someone to defend Elsa.  The people are hopeful in that way way that people are hopeful of a miracle when one is not possible.  It costs them nothing, but they get to feel good in their helpless concern for someone they know in their hearts is innocent.  If her hero comes it could only be by way of a miracle.  Only the guilty person knows the truth, and only the guilty sees the alternative: not sent by God, but by magical means.  A sorcerer who has taken in all.


       


What Wagner does with the question if guilt or innocence as it plays out in Elsa’s Trial by Combat is story-telling at its best.  Elsa’s hero does come and he appears on a boat drawn by a swan, as foretold in Elsa’s dream.  He agrees to fight for her on several conditions - among them that it will settle the question of her innocence, which, if he were victorious, would mean that Friedrich must be lying.  And here’s the beauty of it.  Friedrich isn’t lying.  He accuses Else on the basis of eye-witness testimony from his wife, Ortrud, which she reveals to him but to no one else.  Friedrich refers to it in his accusation but does not name her as his source.  Friedrich is defeated in battle, not because he was lying as everyone now believes, but because he accepts Elsa’s hero as heaven-sent, even though the hero does not claim to be so.


But Friedrich is defeated for another reason: because unconsciously he suspects the truth, that his wife was lying and that he is helplessly in her power, not because she uses some magical spell (though she could) but because he is hopelessly in love with her - as men are who do dumb shit out of some misguided notion that it will appease the volcano and grant them eternal love.  Getting the picture?


       


All this is just background to the other Love, the one that confounds Love with Faith, the one out of which Eurydice demands that Orfeus not look back at her if he is to successfully bring her back from the Underworld.  (The idea that men feel that their feminine ideal needs to brought back from death is too significant to mention when considering the power or Love, but too consuming to delve into at this moment.)  Elsa’s hero asks another condition: if he wins the battle with Friedrich, he will marry Elsa, but she must never ask his name or his origin.  This in a time where men are named accordingly and all honors and understandings are bequeathed with the name.  (Tolkien understood this all too well.)  She agrees.  He repeats the condition.  She agrees again.  Where Elsa feels she will have married the closest thing to God, Ortrud sees the opportunity to defeat both Elsa and her upstart hero.


       


Orfeus has to look back, he has no choice, and Elsa has to do the same.  They cannot help themselves.  Doubt comes with the territory, and once it takes hold Reason cannot win out.  When a lie is sown together with enough truth, it takes hold like a cancer and for all our insight and technology we are helpless once in its grasp.  This is Ortrud’s special gift.  The higher the stakes the greater the doubt.  Time after time, Elsa confronts her Faith, first by Ortrud, then Friedrich.  At first, she believes in her own innocence, and declared her Faith in her Hero, even though she doesn’t know who he is. The fact that she was defended by her hero based only on his faith in that innocence is very compelling.  This is how Love works.  We take another person’s interest in us, despite the truth - that we are never fully innocent, for example - as Love.  And we have absolutely no idea where their interest comes from in the first place.  Just ask Elsa.  When she finds out, the mystery is solved but the Mystery is voided. The Christian God remains a Mystery - the better for all of us.  Mystery fans the fire of Faith.  But also Doubt.  And since we can never know another person any more than they us, the whole deal is taken on faith.  God, it is said, knows us, but we don’t know God.  Nor can we.  It’s a matter of Faith - not just that He exists, but that He is our Hero.


       


When Elsa finally breaks Faith and asks the question, she has essentially reneged on her own innocence.  She will lose everything and, like all humans before and since, is astonished at the consequence despite its having been foretold by her hero.  Dostoyevsky says in Notes from the Underground that in order to assert our own free will we will do things contrary to our best interest.  Until Lohengrin I had always accepted that as an axiom, and now I am not entirely convinced.  Or, perhaps, he is correct but there is something else that’s starts the ball rolling: Doubt?  How any times do we question our own good fortune? Life itself, to take the most obvious example.


Billy Crystal famously claimed that men and women can’t be friends because the sex thing always gets in the way.  His comment, flippant though it was, holds more than a grain of truth and served to get our attention for a romantic comedy.  But we do like our subtexts (personally, I don’t think there is much to ponder in the idea that Lohengrin is about the inconstancy of women) so perhaps Wagner - whose subtitle for Lohengrin is “A Romantic Opera” - may be claiming is that men and women can’t walk off permanently into the sunset because they can only accept Love on their own terms and have fundamentally different expectations of each other: Lohengrin is diverted from his Quest, conveniently left ambiguous (we men are so clever), to champion a woman, demanding only unswerving loyalty from her. And Elsa, for her part, insists that she requires from him some imperfection, something for her to fix or suffer for.  The Christian God manages to have it both ways.  In his vanity, Lohengrin fails to ask that it should be suffering enough that Elsa go through life not knowing his name or where his origin.  Perhaps this why many believe that you can’t know God until you are dead.


       


Performance & Staging

OK, so I still can’t quite warm to Lohengrin’s silver suite and glitter make-up (evidently not supposed to be seen in such detail or clarity by the audience), but that - and the sight of the resurrected brother as a child in long underwear at the end of the opera - aside, this is one hell of a staging and performance.  After a brief time spent checking out the conductor and his musicians - in sensibly and beautifully rendered camerawork for a change - our attention rests on what appears to be an empty stage save two large blocks of undefined space between which and from a remote distance walks the figure of a woman through the darkness toward us. For the longest time there are no cuts.  As she nears, the lighting subtly changes to let us see her emerge from the blackness of the space between the two massive blocks, and from which her hero will later appear in a shaft of brilliant light. A stage appears before her, she steps onto it and walks slowly across to a chair at stage right, a chair that she and others will revisit at critical moments from here out in wordless soliloquy. She sits and waits, hopefully.  All this to the most sublime opera prelude ever written.  Wagner could have died having written nothing else and he would be revered.


       


Suddenly the blocks turn outwards to reveal a tiered collection of steps, like a parliament, on which sit a good many men who come to life with the music and walk down to the stage to greet one another in a hubbub of anticipation.  Heinrich is announced.  He comes to the principality of Brabant to raise an army only to find himself embroiled in a contentious rivalry for succession, the previous duke having died.  Should the successor be Elsa, the duke’s daughter, or Friedrich the man who now accuses her of having drowned her brother to gain the throne.


The visual motif of a rise of steps plays out in the second act in which all is being made ready for Elsa’s wedding after Friedrich’s defeat.  He lives to mourn his shame and accuse his wife for having led him to it.  But God isn’t the only being with the power to resurrect a spent life.  Ortrud is a past master.  The stage is lit in deep blue with narrow beams of white light across a raked walkway midway up the stairs.  The effect is stunning, isolating, infinite, remote.  A chorus of 100 hardly fills the space.  The final act plays out in what we take as a parlor in the home of Elsa and her hero, as yet unnamed.  He sits at a piano composing, perhaps, while Elsa slowly decomposes in Doubt.


       


The actors could not have been better chosen for visual impact.  Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn is purity and innocence, joy and ecstasy personified.  She has just enough weight to her voice to be heard against all that is arrayed against her, though her upper notes are not as confident at ff in the first act; funnily enough she is stronger in the second act when she squares off against Ortrud.  Waltraud Meier is quite possibly the finest Wagnerian soprano living, though even she oversings her entrance at the end of Act III.  Vocally, and every which way, her Ortrud towers over poor Solveig.  Meier has focus and power the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve heard before.  We know Elsa hasn’t a chance against her.  Tom Fox as Telramund has a fine physique to correspond to his projected power, and a voice that suggests authority but shows a little lack of strength when forced.  It works, though not intentionally, I’m guessing.  For complete authority we need rely on the aptly named Hans-Peter König as Henrich.  There’s a rich bass for the role, yes.  And Roman Trekel, the German baritone who sounds like a tenor (shades of Melchior, anticipating Jonas Kaufmann) as the completely authoritative herald.  Finally we have Klaus Florian Vogt as the silver voiced title character, a role he has made his own, first at the Met, no less, earlier this same year.  Innocence of a quite different kind.  Confident. Self-absorbed. Righteous. Loving.  Could God be more?


       


Video:

Opus Arte transfers this three-and-a-half hour long opera over 61 GB (Act One is on the first disc, sharing the dual layered space with the hour-long bonus feature, also in HD).  Opus  Arte can be trusted for solid, no nonsense, glitch-free transfers, and this Lohengrin is no exception.  The photography, overseen by the reliable Thomas Grimm, is solid, sometimes inspired, though there are moments where I would have cut later.  And I certainly wouldn’t hold a shot of someone singing in the foreground whom we can’t hear for one reason or other, as is the case with Waltraud Meir at the end of the first act. 


I can’t say who is responsible for it but, the second act, with its sideways shafts of light, requires constant exposure control as the subject moves closer or further from the light, and we can see the correction subtly applied from time to time.  It demonstrates watchfulness, yet I wonder why can’t the cameraman see this as it happens and do the correction before the cut?  Well, I’d rather the correction than have serious overexposure.  At the other end of the spectrum are beautifully rendered shadows where dark figures can be seen against still darker backgrounds. Close-ups (the lenses must be fabulous) are jaw-dropping: dense, sharp and coherent.


       


Even the redoubtable Thomas Grimm can make a mistake, however.  Note how the veteran video director overlooks correspondence between image and music at the Entrance of King Heinrich, Act 3, Scene 2: Elsa has just been brushed off by Lohengrin after she asked the fateful questions about his origins.  She sits dejected and alone on the chair as the curtain closes behind her. The camera is on a wide shot taking on the whole stage, which consists largely of curtain and a diminished Elsa.  As the orchestra builds into one of the most stately climaxes in operatic literature, the camera moves slowly into a closeup of Elsa folded into her chair.  So far, so brilliant.  The tension is heightened by the contrary juxtaposition of orchestral climax and an Elsa that has nowhere to go. 


And then, suddenly, while the orchestra continues its build-up the camera cuts to an opening in the curtain beyond which we cannot see, and a lone young woman appears from stage left to peer into the opening.  She motions to friends to join her and they all proceed through the opening all of this in a tight shot, which begins to undo the tension prematurely.  But Wagner is not ready for his tension to release until the arrival of the chorus which is revealed only after the curtain opens fully.  Compounding what I think is a mistake begun by Lehnhoff’s stage direction by introducing the ordinary folk just before this point (and that Grimm makes worse by singling them out in close-up) Grimm cuts to a small portion of the chorus in close-up, yet the audio places the chorus a couple hundred feet downstage.


       


Audio:

As is common for opera on Blu-ray, we are offered the choice of two lossless audio tracks.  That said, there is some confusion about the precise audio mixes used for this recording.  Opus Arte’s own website lists the surround mix as DTS-HD MA 5.1, whereas the back cover lists it as PCM 5.1, not that there is a great deal of difference.  My understanding is that DTS-HD MA, while lossless, is managed with a variable bit rate, whereas PCM and LPCM use constant bit streams. If all things were equal, the PCM would be better, at least theoretically. However, they are not equal, as Dolby TrueHD can attest. I generally prefer Dolby TrueHD and PCM over DTS-HD MA, feeling that the latter does some enhancements that are not entirely truthful, tweaks that are more at home accompanying thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy films.  My OPPO player reads the audio tracks as LPCM 2.0 and LPCM 5.1 respectively, both at 48k, 24-bit. So, there you have it.


Both surround and 2-channel mixes here have their virtues.  The surround mix is truly awesome only if you are willing to play it at concert volume, else the soloists, and especially the chorus, sound too distant in relation to the orchestra.  At lower volumes the stereo gives the voices more weight, a little more near-field resonance and truer timbre; however, I found it a bit more aggressive, bordering on harsh at times.  A word to the alert here: the stereo mix is presented at considerably greater volume than the surround, so take care. Once at full throttle in surround, still more forward than immersive, the stage and pit can be voluptuous indeed, especially in the climaxes toward the end of Acts 2 and 3 when the 100-strong chorus adds their voices to a powerful and multi-colored orchestra, lovingly and insightfully guided by our own Kent Nagano.  By the way, this is a huge stage, so large that this huge chorus is so arranged that they never appear to be densely packed until the moment they converge on Friedrich.


       


Bonus:

In his hour long film “Never shalt thou ask of me. . .” Reiner E. Moritz documents the scenes behind the scenes with interviews by four of the six soloists (Meier is conspicuously and unforgivably absent), stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, set designer Stephan Braunfels, costume designer Bettina Walter, and conductor Kent Nagano. Just once in one of these features I’d like the video director to make his or her presence felt, but I imagine no one has ever given the idea much thought despite how much what they influences the outcome.  All the same, this is an excellent feature, and I intend to revisit it someday to give some of the conceptual thinking more time to sink in.  Further thoughts on Lohengrin and this production can be found in essays by Moritz and Lehnhoff respectively in the booklet that accompanies the discs.


This is a Class A effort by all concerned and gets my enthusiastic endorsement.  One word of caution, however, Lohengrin is not of the same stuff that we think of from Die Walküre, Der fliegende Holländer or even Tannhäuser.  It is more reflective on the one hand and declamatory on the other, and lacks what we think of as stand and deliver arias. It is the opera where Wagner’s idea of what he would soon call Dramas started to take serious shape.  It takes a certain amount of patience at first encounter, but then Wagner tells us as much with his opening prelude, perfectly reinforced by Lehnhoff’s staging and Grimm’s patient cutting.  Heaven-storming climaxes are few and far between.  Lohengrin, after all, is where that now-traditional wedding processional comes from.  So give this the respect it is due and you will be rewarded, again and again.


       

 

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 26, 2012



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