Monday, February 1, 2010

Heppnered Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper Berlin

Friday, January 29 2010
Going to Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB), I felt I was lucky to have a ticket for this ausverkauft and very starry night of Lohengrin :

Lohengrin - Ben Heppner
Elsa- Ricarda Merbeth
Ortrud - Waltraud Meier
Telramund - Eike Wilm Schulte
Heinrich - Kristinn Sigmundsson
King's Herals - Anton Keremidtchiev 

Director - Goetz Friedrich
Conductor - Michael Schonwandt

In spite of the very snowy weather, freezing cold and ice on the pavements surrounding DOB, the theater was packed for the opening of the new run of Lohengrin.

Personally I was mostly interested in the DOB chorus, and maestro Michael Schønwandt (whose Copenhagen Ring I tenderly loved), but I think most of the opera-goers were answering to the buzz the PR staff generated about Ben Heppner (many interviews in the daily newspapers; plus huge posters "big voices return to Berlin") and about Waltraud Meier -who doesn't sing that often at DOB- who the Germans simply love.

The Goetz Friedrich production is 20 years old and it shows. A Berlin friend told me the Berliners love to see this production over and over again.  Since a modern production of this opera was recently given at UDL (also in Berlin), I guess there is nothing "wrong" in wanting to see a classical take on Lohengrin - even if the sets were indeed shabby ;)  

Scene from Act-2: on the way to the church [right before Waltraud  breaks the party ;)]

It is as classical approach to Lohengrin as it gets, but it is well done. Goetz Friedrich had talent for directing the operas; he knew how to emphasize the dramatic moments while using the sets only to embellish or exacerbate the importance of those moments, and to give the whole show a spectacular touch. The opposite of Zeffirelli, if you ask me. He was also a mentor to our fav Stefan Herheim... --> I say, Respect the legend! ;)

I should also stress that this show is a part of the Wagner Wochen and the DOB artistic managers obviously wanted to invest most to assure the high vocal quality of their shows. This is why they invited the stars; then the stars attract the crowds and the shows are sold out. Same ole formula which works. But in terms of quality was this really a success?

It is partly my problem because I went to see this Lohengrin while still having fresh in my mind the unforgettable production by Herheim which I saw last year at UDL-Berlin, with some of the most extraordinary singing (with Klaus Florian Vogt the most outstanding Lohengrin of all time), and the superbly sung production at BSO in Munich (with a knockout performance by Anja Harteros).  No matter how hard I tried not to compare this show to what I recently experienced,  the bar of my expectations was nevertheless too high. So all together it was a good show, but not as good as I expected it to be.
 The German orchestras are special when it comes to the music by Wagner. I hate the statements like "They have it in their DNA!" often quoted by the press: (a) it is stupid, (b) it is an extrapolation of the racists' rants, and (3) I can name you at least 3 German orchestras who I listened butchering Tristan, and many excellent non-German orchestras performing Wagner amazingly good... Rather it has to do with culture, with the way the German musicians feel the drama, the poetry of the language, do not dissociate the music from the rest of the Wagner's operas... and invest hours and hours of dedicated work to bring this music to life in that particularly poignant way.

The maestro Schønwandt was leading the orchestra very well. His first two acts were a tad different from Barenboim's memorable conducting in April 2009 (not in November 2009 when Barenboim had some sloppy moments), but not less beautiful! Everything was so smooth and delicate, yet lively and filled with passion. And that was so until Act-3 when the sound got a bit flat: don't get me wrong -- it was all correct, there was no sign of decomposition or desynchronization; yet his conducting just lost in vigor during the second interval and fell from excellent to good.  Maybe he's been trying to help Ben Heppner who was struggling to finish the show?! It's a thought...

What about the soloists? 

Ricarda Merbeth was especially good in Act-3, when her volume and her stamina were more than admirable. She truly is a brilliant singer: to me it's always impressive to hear a singer with such a power and punch to nail all the high notes with such an ease and without losing any of her voice's timbre. However, she's not Elsa. Her voice is too heavy to match the innocence of the role and this is particularly conspicuous in Act-1 (and I do not compare her to Harteros, Schwanewilms, or even Röschmann).  I bet she could be a sensational Isolde...

Ricarda Merbeth in Act-3 of Lohengrin, DOB, January 29 2010

Waltraud Meier was all fired up and her Ortrud was glorious. When she really wants it she delivers like no one else can. She matched the power and stamina of Ricarda Merbeth in Act-2, making it  arguably the most beautiful moment of this 5 hours long night. She totally deserved a huge explosion of BRAVO's during the curtain calls, she was blowing the kisses to the crowd, and they loved it. German operagoers love Waltraud, and she loves them back :)

Waltraud Meier in Act-3 of Lohengrin, DOB, January 29 2010

Eike Wilm Schulte is my surprise #1. I knew he was going to sing in this production but I thought it would be one of the honorary/secondary roles. Hell no! The guy is more than 70 years old and his Telramund sounds so fresh that many of his colleagues --straddling around the age of 40-- could sit in awe and admire what this man can do: no vibrato, no fatigue, no strains in any register. He sounds healthy and during the first interval I was triple checking to make sure it was him singing and not someone replacing him. Unfreakingbelievable!!!

Wilm Schulte and Meier, curtain call, Lohengrin, DOB, January 29 2010

Kristinn Sigmundsson was good too although, to me,  he is still unconvincing in Wagner. He's an aria-type singer which is good for Mozart operas but not so much for Wagner's. He sings his solo numbers wonderfully and in between his voice isn't half as powerful, and even the timbre changes.

Ben Heppner "heppnered" the show.

Last October at ROH  I concluded that Tristan was just too big a role for him and it was his bad judgment to think he could pull it off; it was a risk he took --which I more than appreciate-- it turned out to be a mistake --> OK, we move on! And that in spite of all we suffered with him while he struggled like mad during the second half of Goetterdammerung in Aix-en-Provence 2009. Both these roles are far too tough and he lacks stamina to finish them decently. But Lohengrin should be within his grasp!!!

After Klaus Florian Vogt and Jonas Kaufmann, I wasn't even happy with Burkhard Fritz (UDL, November 2009). Yet his Lohengrin was super-praiseworthy when compared to Heppner's.

Ben's voice is now heavy and his Lohengrin sounds tired and uninspiring from the first note he sings. I'd cope with that if it was the only problem that night, but unfortunately it wasn't. As we all know, his poundage is a liability to give any scenic credibility to his Lohengrin, which this classical staging exposed even more. It becomes annoying only when no decent singing compensates your lack of imagination (decent would be fine; I don't ask for great singing!).

Even during the first act he would shorten his phrases, he'd often run out of breath, and some suspect cracks would creep in an otherwise very tentative singing. Then I thought it was me being picky and Ben was actually saving the best for Act-3...

He was resting for the most part of Act 2 and then came back in third for some of the most embarrassing operatic moments I experienced in any big Opera House. From the outset of Act-3 his middle register started to wobble and the cracks kept coming inadvertently. He avoided ALL the high notes, pushed his middle register to shout as loud as he possibly can, and thus modified all the beautiful Lohengrin-singing in Act 3. Now imagine how tough it was to sing piani with such a state of voice!  In Fernem Land was scary not only because it sounded awful, but also because you started to feel bad for Ben Happner. You don't care about Lohengrin any more. You just want this drama to end.

The crowd was particularly kind to him: he was only mildly booed, even though many people were stunned by his poor form (judging from what I discretely listened the people around me saying during the intervals and esp on the way back)...

Ben Heppner and Ricarda Merbeth, curtain call, Lohengrin, DOB, January 29 2010

 To end this LOOOONG report on a positive side: Anton Keremidtchiev a magnificent voice - watch out for that guy!
Maybe the most beautiful part of this opera are its choral pages, and there cannot be a better place to experience that than DOB (OK, OK, there is Bayreuth too). They are unbelievable and if you get a chance to see any Wagner's opera in Berlin containing tricky choral pieces (Lohengrin, Tannhauser, Parsifal or Rienzi) this chorus rises them to a whole different level; the chorus alone is worth your trip to Berlin :)


  1. Hi! Just discovered your blog. Great stuff here. Congratulations. I was in the Lohengrin performance, and agreed with most of your impressions. Not so sure about Merbeth as Isolde. But she definitely wasn't Elsa. And Heppner doesnt come near Klaus Florian Vogt, who, IMO, is THE Lohengrin. As for Waltraud Meier, well, she is amazing. I'm not German, but I too do love her! Her performance, alone, was worth the whole night, despite the poor sound of the orchestra and weak conducting. I kept missing Baremboim during the whole performance...

  2. Hi & thanks!

    Ben was indeed in a poor state. As for Merbeth, to me she sounds far more like Isolde than Elsa. The strength and volume of her voice, in addition to the ease she displays in the higher register must give a good Isolde. Maybe it's too heavy for her right now but you'll see she'll get to sing it in not soo distant a future.

  3. Hope you're right about Merbeth. We do need new Isoldes...

  4. So be it. Strasbourg is not the only theatre putting on Ariadne. Philippe Jordan's "reprise" azt la Bastille was presented at La Génarale yesterday evening and was a resounding success, from what information I have been able to glean. Nonetheless, we shall be seeing it all "in the flesh", as it were,on the 20th, just for further pleasure.
    Harlekin was very good, I was told.