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Richard Wagner: Lohengrin, WWV 75
Piotr Beczala (Lohengrin), Anna Netrebko (Elsa von Brabant), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Tomasz Konieczny (Friedrich von Telramund), Georg Zeppenfeld (Heinrich der Vogler), Derek Welton (Der Heerufer), Chorus of the Saxon State Opera, Jörn Hinnerk Andresen (chorus master), Orchestra of the Saxon State Opera, Christian Thielemann (conductor), Angela Brandt (director, after the original production by Christine Mielitz), Peter Heilein (set and costume designer), Friedewalt Degen (lighting designer), Tiziano Mancini (video director)
Recorded live at the Semperoper, Dresden, Germany (May 2016) – 215’
2 DVDs Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 5319 (or Blu ray 00440 073 53226) – Notes in German, English, French - Subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese

This is certainly going to please a lot of people. It’s a bit of a blast from the past, namely a production dating from 1983 in Dresden, two years before the reopening of the city’s treasured landmark, Semperoper. The production has served the company well over the years, with 111 performances prior to 2016 when a revival featured the first Wagner roles of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. There were only four performances and I can just imagine the frenzy for tickets.

The overall visual style is arch-romantic, with the principals in medieval garb. The Brabantian men are dressed militarily in the style of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, the era of the notorious Kaiser Wilhelm II; this is probably intended as a message about German militarism to the local audience, but the effect is not jarring. The sets are non-lavish and appropriate to each scene. The swan is a crystalline presence glimpsed at stage rear.

The unified sense of purpose between soloists, chorus and orchestra with Christian Thielemann’s mastery, as he unfolds the architecture of the work, verges on the uncanny. The principals are in flawless voice and perfectly embody their characters. Piotr Beczala has an upright, boy-scoutish manner that works wonderfully, while Anna Netrebko’s limpid but firm delivery captures every nuance.

Evelyn Herlitzius channels Ortrud’s venom while Tomasz Konieczny gives a riveting, virile performance as Telramund. Georg Zeppenfeld’s King and Derek Welton’s Royal Herald complete the starry cast.

There are just four elements in the production I would have preferred differently (though none reduces my considerable enjoyment of the performance:)

1. The production seems somewhat stage-bound in Act II when the wedding procession has to fill in the lengthy music devoted to it by leaving the stage then re-entering before wending their way to the centre rear. The treat here, though, is listening to the music ever so gradually, evolving from a state of relaxed simplicity to its joyous climax with more than a hint of menace.

2. The four pages are played by women, not boys.

3. The "Prelude" to Act III is too hard-driving. It displays just what a crack orchestra (and conductor) the Saxon State Opera has (but we already knew that.)

4. I would have preferred a lingering emphasis on the word Taube (“dove”) in Lohengrin’s ”In fernem Land.”

These amount to minor details. (I apologize for mentioning them.)

This issue is destined to be a touchstone performance for many Wagnerites, and it is a terrific introduction to his work for the uninitiated.

Michael Johnson




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