Lohengrin, Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, April 1st 2012
Director ..... Reinhild Hoffmann
Conductor ..... Justin Brown
Heinrich der Vogler ..... Renatus Meszar
Lohengrin ..... Lance Ryan
Elsa von Brabant ..... Heidi Melton
Friedrich von Telramund ..... Jaco Venter
Ortrud ..... Susan Anthony
Der Heerrufer des Königs ..... Seung-Gi Jung
Erster Edelknabe ..... Masami Sato
Zweiter Edelknabe ..... Meike Etzold
Dritter Edelknabe ..... Ulrike Gruber
Vierter Edelknabe ..... Unzu Lee-Park
Erster Brabantischer Edler ..... Doru Cepreaga
Zweiter Brabantischer Edler ..... Peter Herrmann
Dritter Brabantischer Edler ..... Marcelo Angulo
Vierter Brabantischer Edler ..... Alexander Huck
This new production of Lohengrin in Karlsruhe was supposed to be one of the major operatic events this spring in Europe. Now, after its premiere, I think --despite its very high musical quality-- it is fair to say that it didn't live up to the expectations because of its deplorably bad staging.
Whatever the reason for this flop, the basic fact is that Benedikt von Peter was announced to direct and in the end we were presented a very subpar show produced by an ex-dancer from Karlsruhe. We can speculate that von Peter was too busy preparing the 2012-2013 program at the theater in Brehme where he will soon become the chief director and intendant and therefore had to cancel staging this Lohengrin. We can also cut some slack to Reinhild Hoffmann because she had too little time on her hands to come up with something more decent and cover for her lack of experience in opera producing business. In any case the result was bad.
At first it seemed like there was some kind of a concept, which I always appreciate regardless of how good or bad it is actually realized. Sadly, after no more than half an hour the show started to sink mainly because there was basically no interaction among characters. No one seemed to be directed, but placed at a given spot and left alone "to act". It started to look like one of the snoozefest operas filmed in the 70'-80's that you can still find on DVD. After the first act I still kept thinking we should not be harsh with Mme Hoffmann; she is a choreographer and she probably saved her best for the third act. Little did I know...
So what was the starting idea? It all happens on a soccer field. After the prelude a huge statue of a foreign King/Prince (for definiteness I'll half-boldly call it the statue of the Prince of Qatar) was brought in and set up on a prominent spot on the stage. Soon we begin to understand that the Prince of Qatar wants to purchase the local soccer team, and that the people of Brabant and their King are reluctant to sell because that soccer team is a symbol of their dying local patriotism. The King is unhappy but faced with reality he has no other options but to agree selling. Telramund, Ortrud and other Prince's people use propaganda to convince the locals to embrace the deal as a salvation of their beloved soccer team.
The ceremony is in progress when appear sad Elsa [you can guess that her missing brother inherited the ownership of the team] who's well aware that the loss of the local soccer team is a loss of Brabant as they all know it. At the point at which the King Heinrich was about to surrender, pompously arrives Lohengrin, offering the much needed help. He resists the Prince of Qatar, humiliates Telramund, and brings the new flame to the people of Brabant -- a reborn local patriotism, here symbolized by "red and white" colors. Elsa is in love with the savior, but Ortrud manages to plant a seed of doubt in her head: Ortrud argues that she [Elsa] might be doing exactly what she feared the most, i.e. giving up the soul of Brabant to the hands of a foreigner -- Lohengrin, whom she knows nothing about.
One may like it or not, but at least for one act and a half there was an idea. It was amateurishly developed, badly directed, trivially staged... but there was a coherent concept behind the visual mess we were looking at. And then suddenly that concept went down the drain too. The guiding idea of the show got stuck there, the actors were left alone to act out their characters the way they can. Long musical pieces were not choreographed at all. In the third act, instead, a huge polystyrene model of the new Brabant flag was brought on the stage [see the pic above] and 4 guys were aimlessly pushing it and pulling all over the stage... A large white drape, sheet... attached to this model flag fell off and then used for the Elsa & Lohengrin's wedding ceremony... Seriously, I believe even Giancarlo Del Monaco, Mary Zimmerman, Jean Louis Martinoty, Bartlett Sher... and a whole series of tired directors would be astonished how pathetic this production turned out to be.
At least one cannot complain about the bad libretto in Wagner operass. What is their excuse? Karlsruhe Opera is sure better than this. Their Les Troyens was one of the best productions I've seen in 2011. I was told their recent Rigoletto (directed by Jim Lucassen) was terrific and polarized the crowd to those who loved it with passion, and those who disliked it intensely (everyone cared!) With Lohengrin everyone seemed to be on the same boat and when Mme Hoffmann appeared only at the second curtain calls, and was viscously booed by the entire auditorium. No, it has nothing to do with Germans being to passionate about Wagner and hard to please. It is simply a very bad show.
I guess the crowd was really irritated by the staging and a group of a few kept booing everyone from the balcony, except Heidi Super Melton, who received a huge avalanche of bravos. Heidi has a big voice reminding us of Eva-Maria Westbroek 7-8 years ago. When this happens and you can listen to a rich wagnerian soprano who is very young and her voice is still impressively flexible, you cannot but admire everything she sings. Her Didon (Les Troyens) was mindblowing last October and Elsa is maybe even better a match for her voice right now. Her voice is round and beautiful, big and rich in the middle range, glorious in the top register. While the PR for this premiere was focused on Lance Ryan, Heidi blew everyone away and stole the show big time. Something similar to what Anja Harteros did in Munich 4 years ago to Jonas Kaufmann. I can only hope Heidi will resist the temptations and won't accept the offers to sing any of the too heavy Brünnhilde-like roles yet. We need to see her impress us with her Chrysothemis, Sieglinde, Elisabeth.... or the Verdi-ladies -- Amalia, Amelia, Desdemona... In any case the world of opera discovered a new Elsa last night, on a par with Anja Harteros and Anne Schwanewilms.
Lance Ryan soaked a few boos during the second curtain call, which I thought were totally uncalled for. Lance is a great helden tenor of our time. He's a perfect Siegfried with a tendency to declaim -- which makes his Siegfried so irresistible. That quality, however, is not what you need in Lohengrin, and it occasionally played to his disadvantage. It was particularly obvious in the first act when he appeared singing with a bright voice, almost emulating Klaus Florian Vogt. But as soon as he got a little bit tired (encounter with Telramund) he switched to his natural declamatory mode which does not sound right for Lohengrin. I guess he wanted to minimize the effort and save his best for the third act in which he displayed that unbelievable stamina and the ability to sustain the high level of vocal power to the very end (something that makes your jaw drops when you see him perform as Siegfried in either Siegfried or Götterdämmerung). The result is not as beautiful as Jonas Kaufmann's but it is definitely much-much more powerful. Which brings me to my "old" conclusion that Klaus Florian Vogt is the best Lohengrin we've ever had because he sings this role with impressive vocal power, but with a peculiarly detached unearthly beauty. It will be interesting to see what Lance will do as Siegmund in Paris, later this month (Siegmund is halfway between Lohengrin and Siegfried).
Susan Anthony was good as Ortrud. She manages to convey the main thread of Ortrud's character and succeeded all the high punching notes that she had to sing -- including the last ones. Her occasional departures by half a tone up or down were amusing because they would last for one verse or two before she would fall back in tune. Excellent Telramund by Jaco Venter. He really brings theater to the show. His voice is rock solid, broad and powerful. I hope we'll soon get to see him on big operatic stages too! All other were really good too, especially Renatus Meszar and Seung-Gi Jung.
All in all, singing was at the very high level, bit the musical overall impression wouldn't have been this great without Justin Brown. You could feel the complicity between him and the in-form Badische Staatskapelle. They were taking many risks by mercilessly exposing the winds and the brass section -- there were no usual quick waves of strings that normally cover up for possible brass irregularities. This is what in the end strikes you the most about this orchestra. Unlike many others, their winds and brass are particularly impressive, uncommonly united, alert and respond impeccably to relatively fast tempi imposed by Maestro Brown. It was all very clean, very lively, and even if Justin was very particularly careful with singers, he found a way to gradually attaining climactic fortissimos during the musical intermezzos. Great job! Choruses were very good too.
What to say in the end?! I love this opera and I am really glad to have been in Karlsruhe last Sunday evening even if the show was very uneven: the scenic experience was nowhere near the musical standards.
No trailer but here are the production photos ©Jochen Klenk
and some of my CC pics:
|Elsa and Lohengrin|
|Jaco Venter -- excellent as Telramund|
|Lance Ryan as Lohengrin (Siegfried in disguise)|
|Heidi Super Melton (Susan Anthony on her right)|
|Unfortunate excursion to the world of opera producing: Reinhild Hoffmann|