Petra Lang

Lohengrin, Bayerische Staatsoper, March 31st 2016

I had booked for Klaus Florian Vogt, in the title role of this, one of his fêted roles. I was disappointed to see he was to be replaced. Burkhard Fritz was an unknown singer to me, but by the close of this show, I was won over, indeed, moved by his performance.

Here was a Lohengrin of humanity – and it worked. Fritz’s is not quite the angelic mein of Vogt, the paladin straight from Monsalvat, not the stolid crusader one imagines Robert Dean Smith (another replacement) may have done , nor the dream(swan)boat of Jonas Kaufmann. My fellow opera go-er friend likened him more to looking like a psychiatric nurse. The tracksuit with silver stripes and the blue t-shirt are a world away from more traditional productions. (I recall footage of Domingo in full armour off Youtube…). Director Richard Jones shies away from this imagery, and produces instead a cogent work which moves right to the core of Wagner’s concerns. In the hands of Fritz, the work was done good justice. He doesn’t have the strongest, nor the loudest voice but that’s not his selling point. He made up for any quibbles about his voice by investing his performance with sincerity and belief. the text flowed through him, and the libretto was given depth by virtue of nuance, perhaps more instinct than from study. Partly this may be because he was rather a last minute choice, without much time to prepare and partly too, because Mr Fritz is a stage animal, with good stage instincts. The performance was full of splendid moments.

I like Jones’ staging, where a house is raised almost before an audience’s eyes – much easier to build than a castle! – as it links the two lovers together, and becomes something they share. This Lohengrin’s love for Elsa was pure and strong. He kissed her on the forehead in gentle tenderness when in the house and laid down a cot with the light of hope and promise on his face. The remorse he felt  at Telramund’s slaying was shattering to see.  Knowing his life at Brabant over, we saw his sorrow as he knew that cot would be empty forever. We saw him take it down and then raze the house with fire. The interior journey, its movement from joy then in to pain was fully human, and if not quite in keeping with the idea of a pure Knight of Faith, then forgiveable because affecting, in keeping with Wagner’s setting of a doomed love.

Whereas Vogt often sings”In fernem land” as if witnessing the beatific, a vision as Wagner intended (Nelsons helps here of course), and Kaufmann’s care for cadence and attack work to suggest true nobility, Fritz brought forth from within himself memory, love, a saudade of a kind, and a grief at losing Elsa. His hands held together in contemplation, resolve and prayer, Fritz drew us all to him, and to his story (except the gentleman behind me who noisily cleared his throat as the aria was a few line young.) When remembering his father Lohengrin hugged the invisible form of the King to himself; one saw the grail before him and knew he had seen Monsalvat and loved it, and at the fatal utterance “bin Lohengrin genannt” his voice cracked (with sorrow, not force or shaky technique) at “bin”. Unfeigned, I think, and more powerful for it.

Summoning his swan (“Mein lieber Schwan”) he knelt at front of the stage over the pit and beckoned to its imaginary form, as it came closer he stroked it in affection and love. This was a man for whom Lohengrin the man and Lohengrin the opera mattered, and as such, it mattered for us.

Edith Haller as Elsa had an agile, youthful voice perhaps chosen for its potential match with Vogt. Some greater intensity of acting would have been good to have had, but her pairing with Fritz worked fine.

Günther Groissböck as the King was sonorous and one empathised with his conduct, his difficult position of leadership. Petra Lang seemed a little underpowered when she was not declaiming (but her declaiming “Gott?” was rather chilling!). She could do this role in her sleep I think, and certain critics might charge her with doing so, lately. Thomas J. Mayer as Telramund her husband gave  a strong performance, but not perhaps as evil as I would have liked. Notable for me was one of his henchmen, Tim Kuypers, who lent sincerity to his role and belief in the libretto. A stand-out performance, and a singer to keep an eye on.

Lothar Koenigs‘s conducting was of a generally high quality, but I would have enjoyed a more numinous accent to the opening of the whole work, and some more celestial shading at moments needing it.  (I don’t ask much, right?) The choir of the Staatsoper performed well, but some acting was variable, as was their “you’re on stage” discipline. Shuffling feet and wiping noses may be natural but can be a bit distracting! I enjoyed the fanfare trumpets being distributed around the house, aurally involving the audience, and it was a pleasure to see Utz and Jones’ intelligent staging of this magical text unfold before my eyes. Worth the trip.