Notes and Editorial Reviews
RICHARD WAGNER: Lohengrin
Live Recording From The Wiener Staatsoper, 1990
Lohengrin PLÁCIDO DOMINGO
Heinrich der Vogler ROBERT LLOYD
Elsa CHERYL STUDER
Ortrud DUNJA VEJZOVIC
Telramund HARTMUT WELKER
Der Heerrufer des Königs GEORG TICHY
WIENER STAATSOPER / CLAUDIO ABBADO
Stage Directed by WOLFGANG WEBER
Set Design by RUDOLF and REINHARD HEINRICH
Wagner set the action of his "romantic opera" Lohengrin in the "first half of the 10th century" - an instruction which director Wolfgang Weber and his stage designers Rudolf and Reinhard Heinrich clearly took very seriously when they produced it
at the Vienna State Opera in 1990. We do indeed experience the early, gloomy Middle Ages: muted colours, dark clouds, barren landscapes and simple shapes dominate the scene. Weber's simplicity succeeds in evoking clear symbolism; his staging does not impress by means of the spectacular, but underlines the dramatic sense embodied in the music, allowing the outstanding singers full scope to express themselves in this remarkable production under Claudio Abbado. The main roles are taken by Cheryl Studer as Elsa, and Plácido Domingo as Lohengrin - which he first performed as his debut role at the Hamburg State Opera in 1968, at the age of 27.
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
DVD Format: 1 DVD NTSC
Subtitle Languages: German (Original Language), England, French, Italian, Spanish
Running Time: 219 mins
Region Code: 0 (All region)
R E V I E W S:
Lohengrin is a romantic opera in three acts composed and written by Richard Wagner; for those who might confuse it with something else! The story comes straight out of medieval German romance, particularly Wolfram von Eschenbach’s
Parzival and its sequel,
Lohengrin, written by someone else but itself inspired by the twelfth-century epic,
Garin le Loherain. It is part of the ‘Swan Knight’ tradition. For those who have never heard the name of this opera the most instantly recognizable part is the ‘Bridal Chorus’, better known as
Here Comes the Bride and frequently played at weddings in the West.
According to Wagner we are in Antwerp, on the Scheldt in the first half of the 10th century. For their
uber-traditional 1990 production at the Vienna State Opera, Wolfgang Weber and his stage designers Rudolf and Reinhard Heinrich took this stage instruction very seriously indeed. The stage pictures seemingly come straight off the walls of King Ludwig’s fantasy castle, Neuschwanstein. There is an extraordinarily old-fashioned - it is only just over 20 years ago after all! - look to the heavy costumes and the three-dimensional sets. It could be the look of a
Lohengrin from anytime from 1850 onwards. We are clearly in the Middle Ages and it is all very gloomy, with mostly muted colours and dark backdrops. Elsa is swathed like a novitiate from a convent. Lohengrin appears against a large swan silhouette in white and a hint of shiny armour, clutching his almost ever-present sword.
There is very little stage direction or acting and the principals just stand around and do their best. This all makes for some considerable longueurs that the odd moments of dramatic conviction from the singers fail to alleviate. It is not helped by the rather static camerawork and too many close-ups. The most believable acting comes from Plácido Domingo as Lohengrin. This was his debut role at Hamburg State Opera in 1968 when he was just 27 (according to his official age). In Act III he can actually summon up genuine tenderness towards Elsa and real tears when she betrays him. His diction is OK but whether it often is proper German is doubtful. If you were unfamiliar with what he should be singing it probably will not matter. His performance convinces with its burnished heroism, though he lacks the ability to rein in his attack for the more visionary quieter moments.
Cheryl Studer is a vocally affecting and secure Elsa, but she has a much heavier, more Italianate, voice than would be cast in 2012. She is however a rather passive presence on stage, though Dunja Vejzovic is much worse as Ortrud. She looks as though someone forgot to tell her it was not a concert performance … throwing a right arm out from time-to-time isn’t good enough now, and should not have been in 1990. Another singer totally lacking in charisma is Robert Lloyd as King Henry who looks and sounds a little bored with what is going on around him - matching the emotions of those watching this DVD! Georg Tichy is a sturdy Herald and Harmut Welker growls away whilst typically ‘chewing the scenery’ as Telramund.
This is a re-release - with no bonus material - of this broadcast that first came out on DVD about 10 years ago and there does not appear to have been any re-mastering of pictures or sound and both are showing their age … despite it being only twenty+ years ago. This all tends to occlude the contribution of a fine chorus.
The best recommendation for this
Lohengrin is as the antidote - for Wagner traditionalists - to the rat-infested Hans Neuenfels’s 2010 Bayreuth production that has recently come out on Opus Arte DVD for the first time. Another selling point is the presence of Claudio Abbado, at that time music director of Vienna State Opera, conducting the members of the Vienna Philharmonic that play for the opera. There is a transparent beauty through all the acts and he is supportive of all his singers, giving them time to breathe - something that doesn’t always happen in these more modern times. That said, for all its wonderful detail a little more intensity and forward momentum at critical times would not have gone amiss. However I suspect it sounded glorious in the theatre and enough of that remains on this release - from singers and orchestra - to add it to your collection if you do not already have a version of it.
-- Jim Pritchard , MusicWeb International
Before getting into my reasons for putting this DVD performance into the Classical Hall of Fame, a few prefatory comments. In Fanfare 36:2, I wrote a primarily negative review of a reissue of the 1940 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Lohengrin featuring Erich Leinsdorf, Elisabeth Rethberg, and Lauritz Melchior, explaining that I found the tenor’s voice dry and husky and his interpretation of the title role on this broadcast to be brusque and lacking a good legato flow. I also felt that Leinsdorf’s conducting, good in the first act, became unnecessarily rushed in acts II and III. As an alternate, I offered the CD recording that Plácido Domingo and Jessye Norman made with Georg Solti. I already owned this DVD at the time, but felt that throwing it into my review would be like comparing apples to pears, since this was a visual document of a performance compared to an audio-only recording. I did not mention the famous 1959 Bayreuth performance with Lovro von Mata?i?, Elisabeth Grümmer, Rita Gorr, and Sándor Kónya only because, at that time, I had not yet heard the “official” release on Orfeo 691063, which has very satisfactory mono broadcast sound, but only earlier pirate editions in which the orchestra sounded thin, the chorus unsubstantial and the voices somewhat brazen in timbre. Since that time I have managed to acquire the Orfeo Lohengrin, thus it is now my preferred audio-only version of the opera; but alas, it is mono, thus I now bring this video production into play as the best visual representation of the opera—not least because the musical qualities are so good.
To begin with, Abbado’s musical direction has much more in common with 1940 Leinsdorf than with von Mata?i? or Rudolf Kempe. His is a relatively brisk, “wide-awake” Lohengrin, played for dramatic tension in nearly every scene rather than the kind of floating, ethereal movement one hears from the latter two. Both are valid, but to be honest, the brisk, dramatic style is more difficult to pull off in this opera because so much of the music almost cries out for the floating. And I feel that, once past act I, Abbado does a much better and more thorough job than Leinsdorf did. But let us consider the Lohengrin: Domingo is a much more wide-awake, heroic swan knight than Kónya, and that’s OK too. The bottom line is that he sounds committed to his dramatic vision, and carries through the phrasing of his music (note particularly the Bridal Chamber scene, sung so brusquely by Melchior) with greater finish and a finer legato flow.
The rest of this cast is surprisingly solid—so much so that the viewer used to Wagner videos of the past dozen or so years will probably wonder if 1990 wasn’t a “Golden Age” of Wagnerian singing. No, it wasn’t, not by a long shot, but Abbado insisted on singers who could actually sing, and he got them. What a novel conception! Likewise, one doesn’t need either a long-winded diatribe in the booklet or a 30-minute documentary explaining director Wolfgang Weber’s “concept,” because what you see is Lohengrin the way Wagner envisioned it. (Sometimes I wonder if modern viewers, seeing a different production every time they watch an opera, have any clue what the damn thing is really about. Just imagine the argument between two different opera lovers: “Lohengrin is about a guy from another planet who lands in a Star Trek scene!” “No, Lohengrin is about a bunch of people running around in mouse holes with mousetraps!” “No, space men!” “Mouse traps!” Narrator: “Stop! You’re both right! Lohengrin is about a space alien and about people in a mousetrap! It could even be about a CPA who thinks he’s Don Quixote!”)
Yes, a few weaknesses present themselves. Most of act I is too dark to watch properly. (Act II is also dark, but that’s understandable; it’s a nighttime scene.) Studer is far from being the vision of loveliness one imagines Elsa to be (in fact, I don’t like her costume much either; she looks like a novice nun who was left on the curb). But so much of this does work, and work brilliantly, that you start to think that perhaps this Wagner guy actually knew what he was doing.
So now, hopefully, my favorite Lohengrins are clear to all: this one and the Orfeo CD, which Henry Fogel quite rightly put into the Classical Hall of Fame several years ago.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Lohengrin by Richard Wagner
Georg Tichy (Baritone),
Cheryl Studer (Soprano),
Placido Domingo (Tenor),
Hartmut Welker (Baritone),
Dunja Vejzovic (Soprano),
Robert Lloyd (Bass)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Written: 1846-1847; Germany
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