Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lohengrin

Buoyed by the Deutsche Oper’s rejuvenating and invigorating Tannhäuser, and still buzzing from the Semperoper’s terrific Siegfried, I perhaps in retrospect went into this Lohengrin with expectations set rather too high.

Kasper Holten's Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Marcus Lieberenz)

Some of the casting, on paper at least, had a couple of surprises. But not, of course, in the title role: Klaus Florian Vogt performed with the seraphic mien, boyish tone and apparently tireless stamina we’ve come to expect from him. It seems increasingly that this is a marmite voice and technique: some love it, others hate it. He remains unique, though, and certainly impressive as Lohengrin, the role to which he is possibly best suited.  

Sung Ha, a late replacement, showed off a lovely smooth bass voice, if not the requisite authority or gravitas, as Heinrich. Dong-Hwan Lee was an impressive Heerrufer and John Lundgren a forthright if somewhat relentless Telramund (he lost some of his vocal bite as the evening progressed).

There can’t be many, meanwhile, who can sing Ortrud as well as Elena Pankratova (last heard by me as a fearless Elektra in Dresden, as well as an outstanding Fäberin in the Royal Opera’s Die Frau ohne Schatten). Pankratova’s voice is unusually beautiful for these roles, never really running the risk of souring or fraying, it seems, and she sings with a bel canto-like musicality.

I wondered, in fact, whether she might have made a better job of Elsa than Manuela Uhl, a utility Straussian (last year I saw her at the DOB as both Salome and Danae) whose qualities include stamina and a large jugendlich-dramatisch basic sound, but do not extend, alas, to much vocal beauty or stability in terms of intonation—pre-requisites for Elsa.

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She seemed more at sea dramatically than many of her colleagues, too, in what were already rather choppy under-rehearsed waters. In addition, she made very little of her words and tended to drag things down, in pitch and often tempo, at many of hear appearances. She’s a very useful singer, but this was not wise casting.

Donald Runnicles and his forces—so compelling a week previously in Tannhäuser—were having an off night, too. The conductor’s tempos dragged in the first two acts (the second act given in a very full version), but then tended to rush in the third. The playing only intermittently found sheen and polish, the choral singing was often rather raw and untidy.

In the circumstances it seems unfair to judge Kasper Holten’s production. Of his Personenregie, one suspected, there remained little trace in this hastily thrown together revival (the 22nd performance since it was new just under five years ago), making a poor case for his ideas. Nevertheless, even factoring in such theatrical atrophy, it still felt worryingly confused, and an in-depth programme interview did little to help unravel its knotted strands.

Holten had directed the work in Moscow four years before this staging opened and seems to have brought certain ideas from that production (a thinly-veiled allegory of Putin’s rise to power, by all accounts) while adding several new ones. We have Lohengrin as dubious media savvy politician, then, and choreographer of his own rise to power, but we are also in the aftermath of war—not a war, but just war in general—with the male chorus as soldiers from a variety of eras.

Kasper Holten's Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Marcus Lieberenz)

One of the more interesting ideas involves Elsa as guessing at what this Lohengrin is up to before anyone else, suspicious of his motives from the start—although little of that remained in this performance. But the attempt to create a sense of transhistorical universalism left us rather with a sense of jumbled-up, unrelated specifics. And the stagecraft, particularly during a clunky Act 2 that sent us unexpectedly into false-proscenium meta-theatrics, was also at times worryingly shoddy and ill thought through. 

In the end, while I had come away from Tannhäuser newly convinced of its glories; this performance made me think that Lohengrin (admittedly probably a far less interesting work) was worse than it is. And that’s never a good thing. 

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