July 12, 2012
(++++) FLAWED OPERA, NEAR-FLAWLESS PERFORMANCE
Wagner: Lohengrin. Günther Groissböck, bass; Klaus Florian Vogt, tenor; Annette Dasch, soprano; Gerd Grochowski, baritone; Susanne Resmark, mezzo-soprano; Markus Brück, baritone; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $49.99 (3 SACDs).
This is the fourth entry in PentaTone’s remarkable planned sequence of 10 Wagner operas conducted by Marek Janowski. And like the first three – Der Fliegende Höllander, Parsifal and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – this live recording of a concert performance from November 12, 2011 is a triumph in almost every respect: wonderfully sung, beautifully played and excellently recorded. But there is a problem here – not a PentaTone or Jurowski problem but a Wagner problem. Its name is Lohengrin. There is simply no way to make this central character appealing, even in so fine a performance as that of Klaus Florian Vogt, a very youthful-sounding hero whose first entry is small and almost timid but who soon thereafter rises splendidly to the role’s vocal demands and delivers In fernem Land with great beauty and sensitivity. The heroic and holy knight who arrives in a swan-pulled boat to save a maiden’s honor and wed her – but who first demands twice, quite emphatically, that she never ask his name, rank or history – inevitably comes across as cruel, self-centered and cold. And this is not merely a modern judgment caused by changing standards of gender relationships, for Wagner was disheartened to find that many of his contemporaries had exactly this negative view of Lohengrin. Wagner protested that all Lohengrin wanted was to be loved for himself, not for his power and holiness, but few people bought the explanation, because the character never hints at any such thing and simply lays down an absolute demand. This being one of Wagner’s religiously grounded operas, it is easy to make a parallel with God’s demand in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve not eat fruit from one particular tree that was specifically planted where they would be tempted to do just that – especially since Wagner has his own serpent in Lohengrin in the character of Ortrud (Susanne Resmark). In fact, this parallel can be pushed even further by noting that just as Adam and Eve are punished, while God and the Devil survive to battle another day, so Lohengrin’s and Ortrud’s spouses both die in the opera, while the two primary antagonists survive (Wagner simply has Ortrud fall to the ground, while specifying that Elsa “sinks lifeless” to it).
But however one twists and turns matters, the fact is that Lohengrin the character does not come off very well. For that matter, neither does the Grail, on which he blames the demands that he has made and that he says is getting angry because he has dawdled long enough after breaking Elsa’s heart to explain who he really is. Given the fact that Lohengrin is the only Wagner opera in which the words “I love you” are spoken, and that they are said by Lohengrin to Elsa (Annette Dasch), the whole story leaves a rather unpleasant taste in one’s mouth.
But not in one’s ears. The music is glorious, and Janowski understands its beauties intimately and brings them forth again and again in splendid fashion. The music may not fully conceal the flaws in Wagner’s conception of Lohengrin himself, but it certainly obscures those in the opera’s dramatic pacing: what little action there is in Act II essentially replicates what there was in Act I, and it simply does not matter. Standing between Tannhäuser and Das Rheingold in the compositional sequence of Wagner’s completed operas, Lohengrin has many elements of a transitional work in its partial use of leitmotifs and occasional pauses in momentum for set-piece arias – coupled with a use of key structure as fine (if not as subtle) as that in the composer’s later works. The primary singers are, with one exception, absolutely outstanding: Günther Groissböck is firm, resonant and stolid as King Heinrich, and also shows genuine tenderness toward Elsa in Act I; Dasch appropriately combines timidity with uncertainty and (eventually) dismay as Elsa; Gerd Grochowski is forceful and intense as the physically strong but weak-willed Friedrich von Telramund, clearly overmastered by a magically powerful pagan wife who calls upon Wotan and Freya for support; and Markus Brück is sonorous and plainspoken as the King’s Herald. The sole somewhat disappointing performance comes from Resmark as Ortrud: her German pronunciation is only so-so, and she does not seethe sufficiently with venom and hatred, being more inclined to be snide (as when she effectively puts down her feckless husband in Act II). She is far from inadequate in the role, but is not quite at the level of the other performers here.
The Berlin Radio chorus and orchestra are exemplary, as they usually are in this repertoire, and Janowski’s pacing seems so perfect for the opera that one never really thinks whether a section is fast or slow – everything just is, flowing at a rate that seems so natural that it is hard to imagine why anyone would conduct the work at different tempos. PentaTone’s superb SACD sound is matched by its continuing commitment to excellent presentation, with extensive notes on the opera and a complete German-and-English libretto bound into a booklike package. Not even Vogt and Janowski can fully overcome the flaws in Wagner’s delineation of Lohengrin’s character, but listeners willing to contribute a little more than the usual amount of willing suspension of disbelief will find themselves drawn into this performance from its very first, beautifully proportioned notes to its intense conclusion nearly three-and-a-half hours later.