Archive for Lohengrin

In Fernem Land (in Swedish)

Posted in Opera with tags , , on June 6, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today, but just before I head home from the office how about this? It’s In Fernem Land from the opera Lohengrin I went to see last weekend, but sung by the great tenor Jussi Björling not in German but in his native language, Swedish. I think it’s wonderful…

Lohengrin at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.

Lohengrin  is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of  young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a  trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…

In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:

Swan

The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.

In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.

Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs  in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.

It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.

As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich  with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.

Lothar Koenigs is  a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? – which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.

Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of  Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.

I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.

It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!

The Heldentenor

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on August 28, 2009 by telescoper

Last week I was listening one of this summer’s Promenade concerts on the radio. The one in question featured the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group of young Arab and Israeli players conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Before the music actually started there was a lengthy discussion by the radio pundits and members of the orchestra about the decision to include in their programme a piece by Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had actually done this as an encore piece previously, but had never had in on their published programme. The problem was that Wagner was a notorious anti-semitic bastard and his music is considered by many to be emblematic of German Nazism. Many members of the orchestra – not only those who happened to be Jewish, in fact – did not feel at all comfortable playing music that carried such distressing overtones. After much discussion, however, they had decided to reclaim Wagner’s music from its awful past and treat it as their own. The performance they produced last week was really excellent, I should add.

For reasons which should become obvious fairly soon, this spurred me on to put something up here by the great Danish singer  Lauritz Melchior. Born in Copenhagen in 1890, Melchior was probably the greatest of all the Heldentenors. If you don’t know what a Heldentenor is, it’s a term used to describe the heroic lead in most of Wagner’s operas. In the words of Anna Russell, he

… is very big, very strong, very brave, very stupid. He carries a spear and wears a helmet. He talks to birds, laughs at dragons, and travels by swan.

Melchior had an immensely powerful voice, which is obligatory if you have to cut through a huge Wagnerian orchestra, but, unlike many other singers who can sing very loud, he was also extremely accurate and his voice had a very rich texture. Other dramatic tenors of his day had purer voices – but if Richard Tauber‘s was polished silver, Melchior’s was more like wrought iron. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I haven’t heard any modern singers anywhere near as good as him in Wagnerian roles. For me, Melchior is the Heldentenor.

The other thing I should mention about Melchior was that he was Jewish (NOTE: This appears to be incorrect – see comments). Although he performed frequently in German opera houses – including  Bayreuth – during the 1920s, he stopped doing so in 1931 when Hitler and his cronies started systematically persecuting Jewish musicians. He spent much of the rest of his life as a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and eventually took up American citizenship. Despite his ancestry and his hatred for the Nazis, however, he never stopped performing Wagner’s music.

When he  died in 1973,  Melchior’s body was transported back to his native Denmark and he was buried in the famous Assistens Cemetery in his home town of Copenhagen. His grave, in fact, is not far from that of the jazz musician Ben Webster.

I don’t know the date of this particular clip, but it was made for American television, I guess sometime during the 1950s. Melchior was already an old man by then, but I love the way he sets himself for this performance and you don’t have to make any allowance for his years. His diction is superb, there’s a wonderful timbre to his voice and when he unleashes the fortissimo his power is almost shocking. This is the narration In Fernem Land, from Wagner’s Lohengrin that also provides the theme for the exquisite instrumental Prelude to Act I of the opera, which also provided Anna Russell with her reference to travelling by swan..