Wednesday 15 April 2009

So zieht das Unheil in dies Haus (or: The Berlin Barenboim Herheim Lohengrin)

Lohengrin, Berlin State Opera, April 12th 2009. Production: Stefan Herheim. Cast: Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Dorothea Röschmann (Elsa), Michaela Schuster (Ortrud), Gerd Grochowski (Telramund), Markus Brück (Herald), Kwangchul Youn (Heinrich). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

Norwegian director Stefan Herheim has become one of the most sought-after directors after his staging of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival last year. Some thought Herheim created a masterpiece. Others, me among them, did not. Though I have greatly admired Stefan Herheim´s stagings of the past, such as the brilliant deconstruction of Entführung in Salzburg 2003, the Parsifal was quite simply to overly-intellectual and disorganized as I saw it.
Which also applies to this new Lohengrin production, though this time to a degree that I actually find Stefan Herheim more or less has ruined the piece.
The short version of this review is that I do not recall any new staging of any Wagnerian opera, which appealed so little to me than this Lohengrin. Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, was sensational.
In fact I have pondered for two days on how to put this on paper in a both civilized and fair manner. And to start with the fairness, I may add that though the general opinions in the German press on Herheim´s staging were only luke-warm, this review is firmly rooted in the very negative end of the specter. Not to forget, that others found this staging to be a masterpiece.
To the point: I simply didn´t understand the concept. It was a confusing, un-dramatic as well as highly intellectual mish-mash which brought me nothing. And worst of all: It took all the attention away from the music.

It started well: A Richard Wagner puppet dances on a tree-trunk during the prelude. A feather drops down and he apparently starts to compose. We then move on to Act 1, opening in present time with groups of people waving banners displaying the three opera houses in Berlin, apparently an allegory of Brabant with The Herald starting out as the Berlin bear:
All main characters, Ortrud (and possibly Lohengrin) excepted, are puppeteers with a medieval puppet version of their character, which they control. Around the time the horn and helmet clad Lohengrin arrives, the action moves into the medieval times. Still with puppets.
And with the additional twist of all characters wearing naked-body suits with strategically placed figleaves, which they change into at various points, running around the stage.

The explanation? According to the programme booklet, Stefan Herheim explains that the sin of Eve (eating the forbidden apple thus rebelling against God) in Eden is central to the drama of Lohengrin. Who am I to say he is not right? However, as engaging theater, in my opinion it fails completely. And has very little connection to the music drama Lohengrin.

Though the puppet-puppeteer concept does seem rather appropriate for a static piece like Lohengrin, Stefan Herheim, as I see it, fails to ask (or answer) the central questions of Lohengrin, such as: Where does this man come from? Why must we not know his name etc.? Questions Peter Konwitschny actually does both ask and answer in his famous Hamburg production, a major inspirational source for Stefan Herheim.
Readers who admire Konwitschny´s Lohengrin, certainly stand a rather good chance of at least reacting more positively to Herheim´s as I do.
The working relationship between Daniel Barenboim and Stefan Herheim was not the best, with Herheim publicly accusing Daniel Barenboim, among other things, for extended abscence during rehearsals (probably rightly). Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, publicly disagreed with Herheim´s decision to stage the prelude, a decision it was "too late to change" as he put it. A rather strange statement, as one may argue he could have thought about participating in the rehearsals at a point before it became "too late" for changing anything, including the director...

Being the third, and last, performance of this run, the orchestra was simply sensational. Somewhat unusual for Daniel Barenboim, his tempi were rather brisk. But with an energy and inner sense of the dramatic structures making this easily the best conducted Lohengrin I have heard.
Of the singers, Dorothea Röschmann stood out as a simply wonderful and very touching Elsa. With her old-fashioned way of singing, much like that of Elisabeth Grümmer, the dark colouring of her voice combined with superb, stylish phrasing made for a very moving experience. Unlike her Eva in last years Meistersinger, Elsa seems to suit her well. She does reach the limit of her voice, but she doesn´t exceed it.
Klaus Florian Vogt´s Lohengrin has spurred starkly contrasting opinions: Admirers point to his ringing, effortless topnotes. Detractors point to his monotonous singing. Both sides are right as I see it: Vogt´s Lohengrin is monotonously sung and acted with the added benefit (?) of an indifferent psychopathic air to his presentation. Though he really does hit those notes, piercing effortlessly through Barenboim´s orchestra. But contributing to any degree of interpersonal drama he does not. Neither does Stefan Herheim. At least not on stage..

Beauty of voice or expression is not what Michaela Schuster offers. However, her over-all portrait of Ortrud was superb: She clearly inhabited both the comic and desperate sides to the character and delivered a very effective, vocally as well, performance. Accompanied by Gerd Grochowski´s character barytone, singing rather well as Telramund, but having a hard time to penetrate through Barenboim´s orchestra.

How would René Pape have looked running around in a naked-body suit with figleaves and a wooden stick chasing Elsa´s bridemaids? Fortunately (for him), his illness (he has now recovered) prevented us from finding out and Kwangchul Youn delivered a fine performance.
In summary, if you ask how much action and how many intellectual concepts one may put into one Wagner opera, I´d say Stefan Herheim is the man with the answers. And if anyone should still ask who is the pre-eminent Wagnerian conductor alive, it is Daniel Barenboim.

Links to most German and international reviews of the production .

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Klaus Florian Vogt: 4
Dorothea Röschmann: 4-5
Michaela Schuster: 4
Gerd Grochowski: 4
Kwangchul Youn: 4

Stefan Herheim´s production: 1-2

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: ?


Carlos said...

I have to remember the name of this director... to avoid to attend any of his productions. In fact, after having seeing a doku about his last Parsifal production in Bayreuth and doing the same production this year, I decided do not include Parsifal when filling my request for tickets for this year.

lilloboss said...

i was at this show too, and nobody cared a monkey's where the hell pape put his sticks; he just wasn't missed at all: that bloke has some real proving to do! the production was thrilling and coherent as the world is. viz. on multiple levels. 2nd act was as good as i ever expect to see. agree about roschmann, who indeed reminds one of grummer.vogt can actually sing wagner tenor parts; most people cannot: what is the complaint? would you prefer ben heppner?

mostly opera... said...

I completely agree. In this production René Pape was most certainly not missed...

Ben Heppner over Klaus Florian Vogt? Probably not, but then I am not really an admirer of Heppners. The complaint about Vogt I find entirely legitimate: He is extremely monotonous in both acting and singing. But surely he hits the notes as few, if anyone else today. Personally, I would rather have a more dramatic performance including a few skipped notes...

lilloboss said...

hey please tell me some tenors who can sing wagner better than vogt cos i really need to buy some tickets to see them. i cannot think of a single tenor who doesn't look small next to the women: who can sing tristan? when is pape gonna prove himself in a frontline wagner part?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your impressions, which fit with mine from Wendsday - apart from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle. I have never heared such a poor performance by them before (after a great Mahler 9 on Sunday). I saw the rehearsal and one performance and I was completly dissapointed by Herheim. And Vogt: he has great moments but over four hours its boring. I would prefer Botha, who looks terrible but has a great voice with the metall of a heldentenor. The rest of the cast was great, especially Röschmann and Youn.

curzon said...

Lilloboss foolishly asks "when is Pape going to prove himself in a frontline Wagner part?" Strange but I was under the impression that, for basses at least, Heinrich, Gurnemanz,Landgraf and Konig Marke were frontline parts. Perhaps he should try singing Tristan.
Rgarding Herheim I have only seen his Parsifal which was stunning to look at but probably a little full of ideas. However better that than the absurdities of so many other directors...

marcillac said...

Really lillosoboss, Curzon beat me to it and I'm sure Mostly might have a thought or a couple hundred, but the notion that Pape need to prove himself in a frontline Wagner part is absurd.

In respect of adequate Wagner tenors there are very few indeed but I would say RDS, is quite good as Walther and Lohengrin at Bayreuth or comprably sized theaters.

lilloboss said...

yes i am indeed foolish, and in his ability to assess shows he has never seen mr curzon displays a truly intimidating wisdom, which nevertheless and sadly, as with all human capacity, falls just short of the infinite insomuch as he seems unmindful of a part called sachs and of a part called wotan. now these, good people, i call frontline wagner parts and for this reason my foolish question stands. best wishes to all.

Anonymous said...

Sorry everyone but I cannot disagree more!

Stefan Herheim is a pure genius. Completely new approach to this opera: close to the libretto but interpreted differently, yet modern and so utterly profound. To me that was the most inspiring opera I've seen since long time.

Barenboim great as ever, Klaus Florian Vogt gave a mindblowing performance, Dorothea Röschmann totally amazing in her first Elsa. Everyone was just great.

When I saw your bashing, thought I should put my 2 cents so that someone who didn't have a chance to see this fabulous Lohengrin get a more balanced view :y

Cheers all!

curzon said...

Lilloboss you are not sounding any less foolish (as well as being unable to use capitals or puntuation!) Rene Pape is a bass who has, so far essayed bass parts although he plans to essay Wotan. He presumably knows how he wants to pace his career without unwanted advice.
By your reckoning Kurt Moll and Gottlob Frick were not major Wagner singers because they did not sing those two parts! My point stands.

lilloboss said...

dear wise curzon, thank you. cannot use 'puntuation' cos don't know what it is. looked in dictionary: no joy! aeschylus didn't like capital letters either.

curzon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
curzon said...

Oh, congratulations Lilloboss! It must make you feel so superior that I misspellt "Punctuation"! However you have still failed to respond to my point with any valid counter-argument. Pape is reckoned by most opera goers and critics to be pre-eminent in the Wagner bass repertoire. The fact that, so far, he has not tackled the heldenbariton roles of Sachs and Wotan cannot detract from that. If he decides to tackle these roles then fine. If he does not then equally fine - It will not lessen him as an artist or performer if he decides not to tackle an uncongenial role.
Incidentally your assertion that I feel able to comment on productions which I have not seen is incorrect - The only Herheim production I commented on was PARSIFAL at Bayreuth which I have seen and actually found thrilling despite my assertion that it probably had a few too many ideas for its own good.

curzon said...

On a related issue I was at the second perf of "Lohengrin" at the ROH yesterday. The production was the old but still very handsome Moshinsky production. It doesn't offer any blinding insights but neither does it load on any unwanted Konzepts! The orchestra, under Bychov, was in absolutely stunning form (what a change from the dreadful playing for HOLLANDER!) Johann Botha is probably nobody's idea visually of the Schwannritter and one succumbed to several unworthy thoughts about Swans being freakishly strong... However I doubt if anyone today could sing the role the way he sings it with power, sensitivity and apparent ease. He also sings the whole role which I applaud as I hate the customary cut in Act III. I have very mixed feelings about Edith Haller - the middle of the voice is gorgeous and she looks lovely onstage. But the top is, at present, distinctly unreliable and she cracked horribly on the climactic note in the bedroom scene. I'll reserve judgment until I hear her again. Petra Lang was in superb form (almost a match for Meier) and she rung the rafters in "Entweiter gotte". Falk Struckmann returned after being absent due to illness on the first night. He was in compelling form especially in Act 2. I can't imagine many people equalling him in this part today. Youn was in fine form a couple of slightly opaque moments aside.
All in all an excellent evening marred only by constant coughing and an infuriating whistling hearing aid (fortunately turned off for the final act)

Horace Cope said...

I was there too - going again on 16th to see O'Neill. Although I doubt he will equal Botha.

To be honest you have covered every point I would have made !

From were I was in the Balcony I thought it quite quiet but there were a few coughs in the 3rd act though.

I wonder what is going on with Haller in act 3 the reviewers note it on the first night.

I could help thinking in act II - thank god they can't afford a new production so I don't have to sit through a series of half baked ideas ! Admittedly the production is a little old - and you think a new video projection of the swan would not go amiss. Personally much prefer that to a "eurotrash" production.

The golden rule is never "stage" a Wagner prelude - they were never meant or written to be staged. Yet why do so many do it !

curzon said...

I did wonder if O' Neill will be be doing the full version. One supposes so but I have never heard any other Lohengrin risk this version (for many just getting through "In fernem land" is trial enough!!)
I have no particular problem with staged preludes if they add to the audience's experience or understanding. However they are often just used to lay out the director's dubious wares!
I don't know about Haller - apparently she cracked at exactly the same point on the first night so she may well now have a nervous complex about that point. It is, after all, not that high a note (I don't have a score in front of me so I can't say which note) but it should be one well within a Soprano's range. I'd be interested to hear whether she mananges it later in the run.

Horace Cope said...

I have no particular problem with staged preludes if they add to the audience's experience or understanding. However they are often just used to lay out the director's dubious wares! I have never seen one that wasn't !

I have had some difficulty working out where the cuts actually are. It seems to be usual to loose about 10 mins from act 2 and ten mins from act 3.

There is a small section with the 4 knights after the denunciation of Telramund which (I have read) gets cut - but that cannot account for more than 2 mins at most.

I assume the rest must be nibbles here and there

curzon said...

There is usually a huge cut after "In fernem land" through to one of the chorus "Weh!" sections. It makes the most awful jolt especially if you know the score. The section is on most recordings. I am not aware of any sizeable cuts in Act 2.

Horace Cope said...

I did wonder if O' Neill will be be doing the full version. One supposes so but I have never heard any other Lohengrin risk this version (for many just getting through "In fernem land" is trial enough!!) wonder no more ! he didn't although according to the program timing he was supposed to !

Although I heard from someone also present who was speaking to some people who said they went to 2 Botha performances one cut one not - the plot thickens !

marcillac said...


I was curious if you had heard the earlier iterations of this production, specifically the ones in 2003 and 1997. I found the 2003 the best Lohengrin I've heard or seen in every respect. I'd had the opportunity to hear and see all of the principals previously and (with the unfortunate exception of Meier) since, almost invariably to excellent effect but at not time were they as effective dramatically as here (the exception being Pape whose superb Heinrich is invariably outstanding and was so here). Even Meier, whose Vienna Ortrud I had found an absolute masterpiece a couple of year before outdid herself on this occasion.

I have heard similar things of those who saw the staging in 1997. I was wandering if you had attended the earlier revivals and how the current one compares.

Horace Cope said...

Well i saw 1997 - and 2003 to be honest I don't really remember 2003 that well apart from Meier. I don't think Dean smith made much of an impression.

In 1997 Winbergh and Mattilla made quite an impression. As did Gwyneth Jones - but for all the wrong reasons ! Like a spin dryer with an uneven load as one critic put it.

Hard to say - but this could well have been the best of the 3

marcillac said...

Thank for you comment a.

I mentioned her above but could not agree more about Meier who had been the best Ortrud I had heard up to that time but was particularly stupendous in that case.

RDS might have been the weakest of the principles but was still very good and better than in my earlier experiences with him and quite a bit better than Heppner the numerous times I've heard him in the role.

Unfortunately my exposure to Mattila's Elsa is limited to Wilson's appaling Met staging and while she was superb there I would love to have seen her in more auspicious circumstances.

Jones...ugh...I had heard her a few years previous and had invariably found her a very compelling performer with a huge and in some respects not unattractive voice ... but ... oh, THE WOBBLE ... could not be listened through, howsoever hard one might try.

It is interesting that Meier, whose voice has been less than pristine for a long time (certainly by 2001) and who is approaching the age that Jones was when I first heard her IS is able to sing through her vocal difficulties and give fully compelling performances.

Based on what you say it seems to have been a great show.

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