Lohengrin Revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Totem poles in Lohengrin. Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.


music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
8 March 2011

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Set and Costume Designer: John Napier
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Chorus Master: Donald Nally

Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Amber Wagner
Ortrud – Michaela Schuster
Telramund – Greer Grimsley
King Heinrich – Georg Zeppenfeld
The Herald – Lester Lynch

This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.

While the press loosely referred to the production as new, it in fact was created for Covent Garden in 1977 by Elijah Moshinsky, and now seems visually and conceptually dated. On the surface the staging is traditional, but closer inspection reveals various anomalies, no doubt thought advanced for their time. The basic set is dominated by two totem poles of sorts, containing a mixture of pagan and Christian symbols. We take the point, but Ortrud is the religious eccentric in her time, and the sight of everyone making the sign of the cross underneath a pillar topped by the skull of an animal makes no sense. Half the population of Brabant seemed to be monks or nuns, anachronistically clothed, and they were given various odd things to do, most peculiarly before the first act combat, when Communion was distributed via a ciborium that the characters drank from, except for Lohengrin, who thought he was supposed to be picking up a host but looked more like someone taking snuff. The costumes were opulent, but I could not understand why some of them had a distinct Byzantine flavor. King Heinrich, who was carried by clergy in a version of the papal sedia, wore a crown that made him resemble an Eastern rite bishop. In addition the stage was littered with icons that were held aloft in processions. It all seemed a mishmash of elements that might satisfy an audience wanting generalized spectacle, but that were not put in service of a coherent interpretation of the opera.

Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The evening’s music was in the hands of the company’s artistic director, Sir Andrew Davis, a maddening conductor whose way with opera mirrors his ebullient and mercurial personality. He conducts absolutely everything, and one cannot predict on any given evening whether the repertoire will suit him or not. The impression is of someone restlessly moving from piece to piece (he has recently completed the grotesque effort of re-orchestrating Messiah for modern symphony use), and never devoting sustained thought to the totality of the work at hand. As an example, one of the cast members of a Götterdämmerung several seasons ago told me that before the beginning of the second act there was a knock at his door, and it was Sir Andrew wanting him to know that he had suddenly decided that the end of the act should go much faster than they had been taking it. What he had apparently decided for Lohengrin was that it too should go very fast, which made for excitement in places like the finale of the first act and the Prelude of the third, but a certain lack of grace in the Bellini-like vocal lines of the wedding night duet. I think particularly of the point when Lohengrin and Elsa sing together in thirds at “die nur Gott verleiht”, and Sir Andrew would not allow any rubato at all in the beautiful turn on the word “Gott”. He was well-served by his orchestra, whose ensemble was excellent despite the fact that many of the players were ringers. The brass was especially praiseworthy in this opera where there are so many possibilities for the sound to go awry — the heraldic trumpets, brought forward to the edge of the stage, never once faltered. At the start the Grail motif emerged with revelatory harmonic detail; a pity that intonation in the high strings had slipped by the time the music appears again at the end of the piece.

It was, however, the singing that rightly commanded the most attention in these performances. Johan Botha is an artist much respected by his colleagues for his stamina and solidness of technique. When he was replacing the ailing Ben Heppner in Meistersinger at the Metropolitan I am told that fellow cast members were in awe of the easy security of his high notes in the Preislied. The sound is that of a healthy lyric tenor, and the top is indeed unusually well and consistently placed. Botha had been heard in Chicago previously in Italian parts, which do not suit him so well, since he is temperamentally incapable of slancio. Lohengrin would seem the perfect role, and he sang it with dignity and poise at every dynamic level throughout the evening. What I missed was true expressiveness, the way of wrapping the voice around a phrase in a way that puts tone at the service of emotion, something heard today in the Lohengrin of Jonas Kaufmann. This lack is not, I think, a necessary correlative of Botha’s almost complete theatrical inertness. Franco Corelli was not an actor, but no voice could have communicated more drama. Still, it was a great thing to hear the final A’s in “In fernem Land” ring out with such clarity in the Lyric’s massive hall; the performance was surely a success.

Michaela Schuster as Ortrud and Greer Grimsley as Telramund. Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michaela Schuster was making her Chicago debut with Ortrud, which she has sung in a number of European houses. Her dramatic command of the part was clear if somewhat hackneyed. What she lacked was the soaring massiveness of tone that the audience hopes will obliterate the opposition in “Entweihte Götter”. As Leonie Rysanek demonstrates in a YouTube excerpt, this great invocation does not necessarily need to be sung in tune to be overwhelming; what it should not be is shrill, which was the case with Schuster. Her hapless consort Telramund was Greer Grimsley, who gave an admirable performance of what must be one of the most thankless parts in the entire repertory, requiring relentless accented singing in a very high tessitura. It tends to be given to singers with less than beautiful voices who do not have a lot to lose by pressuring the instrument. Grimsley’s tone is more penetrating than plush, but he sang the role as opposed to shouting it, and proved a very deft actor in combining the character’s noble birth with his craven character. Georg Zeppenfeld made a first appearance with the Lyric as King Heinrich, another part written in a cruelly high tessitura, but which must be sung affectingly with a classic legato line. Zeppenfeld’s bass is lighter than one is used to in the part, but his ease in the upper stretches of the role more than made up for a certain lack of authoritativeness in declamation. The Herald, a role in which a number of distinguished singers, most notably Heinrich Schlusnus, made their debuts, was appropriately assumed by Lester Lynch, who otherwise sings mostly Verdi.

Amber Wagner.

I have kept the evening’s Elsa for the end, since Amber Wagner in the part was the highlight of the evening. She was scheduled to sing only the last two performances, presumably because the original Elsa, Emily Magee, had another commitment. I did not expect much, since Wagner’s previous roles were given in the program as Kate Pinkerton and Annina in Traviata. What a surprise then to encounter a full spinto soprano, a beautifully schooled voice, perfectly tuned (and there are distinct intonational pitfalls in “Einsam in trüben Tagen”), capable of soaring over the chorus in the climaxes and at the same time achieving perfectly suspended high pianissimi, as in the A in Act I at “Mein löser”. These qualities, together with a judicious use of downward portamento, reminded me of no one so much as Renata Tebaldi, whose Italian Elsa early in her career Karl Böhm called the most beautiful he had ever heard. I hope the Lyric does not make the mistake the company did with Jennifer Wilson, another Wagnerian soprano who sang one triumphant Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde and then was never re-engaged. We deserve to hear more of Amber Wagner in Chicago.

I should mention in conclusion the Lyric Opera chorus, surely the best of all the major American companies. When their director Donald Palumbo left for New York in 2007 there was fear that standards might slip. But Donald Nally continues to maintain in the chorus a cohesive, pointed sound, and stunning rhythmic precision, while Palumbo has been able to do nothing to mitigate old problems with the undisciplined, tremolo-laden Metropolitan singers. Bravo to the Lyric’s chorus in an opera that demands so much of it.

I would like to report an equally welcome Wagner production in Chicago for next year’s season, but none will be seen. The Lyric has always been a company concerned with financial stability, and in this economy and cultural climate that means a season full of under-cast chestnuts. There will be a first production, however — of Jerome Kern’s Showboat. Andrew Davis is indeed a music director of catholic tastes.

The cast’s curtain call. Photo: Magda Krance.

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