Last season Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala did what most expected was impossible. They performed their first Wagner roles in “Lohengrin.” During the four performances, rumors swirled around that the run had been recorded for DVD. A year later the rumors came to fruition as a DVD was released through Deutsche Grammophon in what is one of the finest “Lohengrin” releases in years.
One must first start with Netrebko’s account of Elsa. Ten years ago when Netrebko was singing the likes of “I Puritani” at the Metropolitan Opera and “Roméo et Juliette,” no one would have considered that this lyric soprano could ever scale the heights of Wagner’s music. However, as she has matured as an artist, her voice has obtained a thicker color and has also grown bigger. However, that has not prevented her from phrasing in unique ways. As a matter of fact, the Bel Canto and Italianate training are shown throughout her portrayal as Elsa.
In her first entrances during Elsa’s dream, Netrebko starts with a pianissimo sound invoking the innocence of the young woman. There is a shyness to her shaping but as she becomes more and more entranced in the story she sings with more conviction letting out more power without ever going for the full intensity. Her movement is also more restless but she recedes back to the piano sound and back to the youthful smile once she ends the story.
In her subsequent scenes, as Lohengrin arrives, Elsa is tormented by the battle and the camera captures Netrebko’s every movement evoking a greater sense of fear. But that look changes and ends in joy as her Lohengrin wins the duel and she is freed from prison.
The second Act shows a number of facets in her complex portrayal. At the beginning of the Act, one sees a benevolent Elsa as she feels remorse for Ortrud’s fate. Netrebko sings with a more mature sound emphasizing each word but giving each sound a brighter color. And then when she finally sees Ortrud, the voice takes on a purer sound as she relishes in the beauty of the long line Wagner wrote for Elsa. The voice almost as if part of the orchestra as she awaits her wedding day. Of course, there is a moment before where we see Elsa’s doubts about Lohengrin. Netrebko’s facial expression going from a bright smile to one of doubt before quickly changing back.
In the wedding scene, Netrebko finally shows Elsa authority as she lets out her full power in her confrontation scene. The beauty in the voice evolves to a more granular sound rich with emotion. But then she gives us the sense of doubt quite amply as the scene develops, her hesitation captured brilliantly by claustrophobic closeups. That is more apparent by the end of the Act as Netrebko seems haunted by Evelyn Herlitzius’ conniving Ortrud hovering over her. At one moment she leans down and sings with a frail and piano voice, that expresses her growing torment. And even as she gets married Netrebko looks back afraid of her fate.
In the Act three duet, Netrebko’s voice matches beautifully with Piotr Beczala’s as their singing swells through the passages. They initiate the opening phrases with a piano sound and blossom with each line, the burgeoning intensity conveying a deep a passion and love for each other. But as Elsa begins to question Lohengrin, Netrebko’s vocal colors change. The tenderness in the voice obtains a rough edge and the piano sound increases in volume. Her movement becomes restless and more pronounced. There is almost an element of madness in this Elsa and in many ways Netrebko shapes some of her phrases in the way Herlitzius shapes Ortrud’s, with less connected lines and greater emphasis on specific words to create a more chaotic feel. By the end of the duet, Netrebko’s voice takes on this very harshness.
It all comes to a head at the climax with Netrebko’s Elsa almost raving in madness. Instead of being filled with happiness upon seeing her brother, Netrebko’s Elsa collapses.
As the title character, Piotr Beczala is a true legendary hero. He is immediately a strong power figure with authority and poise. There is also elegance and gallantry in the way he presents himself. During the duel in Act two, Beczala’s movements always stay controlled. That is similar to the way he sings his opening lines. There is a vocal beauty as he keeps his voice light, caressing the gentle sound of the opening lines Wagner gives the character. We feel tenderness in each of the colors he gives during this moment.
In Act Two, Beczala storms into the scene and the viewer gets a glimpse of the vocal power he has. And yet, the Polish tenor manages to balance this with a sense of gentleness and calm.
It is perhaps Act three where we finally see a tormented Lohengrin. As noted, Beczala matches with Netrebko’s voice perfectly in the duet. When she begins to doubt, Beczala tries to keep poised and controlled, the voice continuing to maintain its elegance of phrase. But as she continues to insist, his voice continues to grow in intensity and his movements also obtain a restless quality. But even here, the consistency of character remains. For all of his increasing torment and disappointment, Beczala’s singing retains its firmness and sense of poise.
His “In Fernam Land” is giving a Bel Canto quality as he connects each line with ease. He begins with a piano sound easily modulates from one dynamic to the next with fluidity. “Mein Lieber schwan” also obtains similar qualities. But at this moment his singing emits the pain of saying goodbye to Elsa. He sighs with the phrases, the ends of the vocal lines withering away.
Tomasz Konieczny was also making his debut as Telramund during this run and while he was overlooked by all the media’s attention on Netrebko and Beczala, he proves to be an ideal interpreter for the vile character that in many ways is just as complex as the rest of the characters.
From Konieczny’s first entrance one understands that this man has a thirst and hunger for power, his thick voice thrown about with imposing presence as he stands in front of the king with authority and assurance of Elsa’s crime. When confronted in the duel with Lohengrin, he moves about viciously looking on at the hero with hate and vigor.
But in Act two that hate and power changes to that of a tortured man, Konieczny lying down at on the floor singing with frailty and unease. Each line becomes more and more fragmented and the intensity in the voice is all the more chilling for it. What was interesting in the duet with his Ortrud, Evelyn Herlitzius, is how they invoke the Macbeths. Herlitzius hovers around Konieczny, manipulating each moment. And when the two finally sing in unison, Konieczny’s voice takes on a darker color emphasizing the villainous plan, each time singing with more intensity and making the sound “uglier.”
In the wedding scene, Konieczny’s voice returns to the vocal authority from the beginning, stepping into the center of the stage. But his gaze never leaves that of Ortrud, always seemingly overpowered by his wife. Even when he fails, Konieczny moves toward Netrebko’s Elsa, becoming that shadow that Ortrud has been throughout, his voice taking on a choppy quality and emoting in slimy fashion.
The Overpowering force
As Ortrud, Evelyn Herlitzius gave an immaculate performance as the wicked woman. While Ortrud doesn’t really sing in the first act, Herlitzius’ presence is always felt as she surrounds her husband throughout the staging. It’s almost as if she is hovering around manipulating every move. She does sing part of the choral music and from there one hears the rawness in the voice.
It is the second Act where Herlitzius finally gets to show off her powerful voice. The duet with Telramund showcases a low range that is haunting and a demonic quality that is vividly expressed in her eyes. Both voices are unified throughout these passages and the duo accent certain moments to create the sound of malevolence.
But Herlitizius’ voice takes a different color in her subsequent duet with Elsa as she subtly shapes the lines with a more mezza voce sound that showcases a seemingly softer woman, the rawness of the timbre hidden and cleaner. The facial expressions take on timidity as well. But once she is able to convince Elsa, Herliztius’ powerful voice returns as she invokes Odin. Herlitzius lets out her full sound in an incredibly raw moment accompanied by the outburst in Wagner’s music that turns her, suddenly, into an overpowering force. And while that moment is short lived the moment Netrebko’s Elsa returns and we Herlitzius’ kneels down and retain a softer timbre, the impact is ever-lingering. As the duet unfolds, the soprano does not look at Elsa as if she has remorse for her actions, though we see her throw out some menacing laughs the moment Elsa looks away. It is here that we get to see the two sides of this Ortrud, and her ability to manipulate with ease.
During the wedding scene, Ortrud hovers about finally getting to relish in her evil character’s actions. As she disturbs the proceedings, Herlitzius steps out with authority and sings almost in declamation before finally being able to get a return to the raw sound. In this final confrontation, Netrebko even matches Herlitzius’ sound as she too forgets the beauty in the voice and goes for the raw emotion. The intensity between the two women boils, almost ready to explode. But Herlitzius never gets to show her full wicked power in this scene.
She leaves that until the final scene where it is apparent this woman has been possessed. Herlitzius sings with aggressive nature, her eyes relishing in her victory. But when she sees the Duke of Brabant, she turns to madness.
Rounding out the Cast
George Zeppenfeld sings King Heinrich with poise and vocal elegance, each movement stately and never driven by emotions. It is the perfect counterpoint to the rest of the characters who are in constant movement. Zeppenfeld gives balance to the extreme emotions constantly being presented in the opera.
And no “Lohengrin” can not be a success without a chorus ready to take on the gorgeous work and lengthy choral music Wagner wrote. Lead by Christian Thieleman’s swift orchestral playing there are heavenly moments of delicate, thread-like singing and some rousing moments that evoke the grandeur of this work. One such moment is the end of the second act when Elsa and Lohengrin are ready to marry. Here the chorus seems unearthly almost floating up to a heavenly place. It is a sublime moment that is contrasted with the chorus’ final moments as they evoke shouts as Ortrud unleashes her venom. At the beginning of the wedding scene, the chorus sings with triumphant sound, evoking glorious sounds of church choirs. The wedding march is sung with subtlety making it a peaceful moment and one of the highlights of the DVD.
In the pit, Christian Thielemann conducts with swift yet delicate textures. His prelude begins with an intimate sound that builds gradually. But throughout this passage, he seems to be saving the full resources of the ensemble, finally releasing the orchestral potency for Ortrud, particularly as she invokes Odin. Here Thielemann emphasizes the staccato in the violins and there are rhythmic precision and intensity to compliment Herlitzius’ harsh sound. And of course the final moments of the opera, there is an unsettling feeling. Whereas some conductors would end the opera in a less of a boom, Thielemann decides to end with a forte sound making for a triumphant yet unsettling conclusion. One of the biggest highlights of Thielemann’s conducting is his tempi. Never does he slow the music down or try to labor on anything. Instead, he tries to make the performance flow going from one melody to the next, allowing the action flow. The emphasis on the leitmotif is also a highlight as each one is more pronounced, allowing the audience to interact more with the complex score.
The Video Director
All the detail described in this performance would not be possible if the direction was constantly cutting from closeups to wide shots to medium shots, a trademark of bad opera recordings we see these days. Tiziano Mancini cuts only when he needs to to keep the action moving and always gives enough time for the audience to take in the singer’s performances. The camera is not moving at all times which helps for some of the slower passages in Wagner’s music. Mancini also makes sure to emphasize the grand opera aspect cutting to wide shots of the chorus and panning and tilting to evoke the immensity of the choral music. The intimacy of the duet in Act three is conveyed using two-shots. Most importantly, there never feels like an image is distracting and taking away from the flow of the story.
Overall this release by Deutsche Grammophon is an essential for any Wagner lover and for any Anna Netrebko or Piotr Beczala fan. It will not disappoint anyone.