BWW Reviews: Kaufmann and Dasch Triumph in HD Broadcast of LOHENGRIN from La Scala, Despite Directorial Missteps

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You have to love the Italians--particularly the Milanese. Where else but at La Scala, the city's temple of dramma lirica, could you find a public so passionate that it complained loudly and bitterly when it was announced that a work by a German (Richard Wagner) was opening the season rather than an opera by a local boy (Giuseppe Verdi)? It's because they care--and it's rather comforting that it can still happen in the 21st century (unless you happen to be on the receiving end of their wrath, of course).

Despite the uproar, Wagner's "Lohengrin" did open the season at La Scala. And, judging by the HD performance presented by the "Opera in Cinema" series from Emerging Pictures, seen January 20 in New York City, the December 7 event was a pretty fine night for singing.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann was in stellar voice as Wagner's Lohengrin, with his seamless, strong baritonal sound. Last-minute substitute soprano Annette Dasch thrilled as Elsa, saving the day when two singers came down with the flu and she rushed in from Germany on a day's notice, giving little hint that she wasn't thoroughly rehearsed. The rich voices of bass René Pape and baritone Zeljko Lucic were luxury casting in smaller but key roles. The La Scala Orchestra gave a fine performance under the baton of Music Director Daniel Barenboim, who emphasized the opera's Italianate aspects, sometimes sounding like parts of "La Traviata."

Their triumphs could have been a happy ending to the sturm und drang over the opening of a season that marks the bicentennials of both Wagner and Verdi. It makes it even more the pity that director Claus Guth came up with a concept that ranged from the banal to the ridiculous, fighting his singers--particularly Kaufmann and Dasch--at every turn.

Guth changed the setting from the 10th century Brabant (modern Belgium) to the 1800s for no apparent purpose, neither enhancing the music nor enlightening the libretto. It seemed to take place in front of a faceless, 19th-century Marriott hotel, designed by Christian Schmidt with lighting by Olaf Winter, and was particularly dreary when Lohengrin and Elsa rush down the hallway to celebrate their wedding night.

The production was filled with absurd touches: Instead of Lohengrin's arrival as Elsa's white knight, he was cast ashore, a huddled mass of jelly as if out of "The Bourne Identity"--and both characters seemed more or less unhinged. While it has been common to dispense with the traditional swan boat for Lohengrin's arrival and departure, the use of handfuls of feathers was just plain silly, looking like a duvet had exploded on the set.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the spectacle of the lead couple splashing around in the marshes--nearly hip-deep in water. It was more laugh-provoking than sensual and Dasch looked like she was wondering whether the trip to Milan was worth the effort, as she waded around in her wedding dress.

The two other major characters were less salubriously cast. These "evil twins"--Telramund and Ortrud, sung by baritone Tomas Tomasson and soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, respectively--both disappointed, though it was reported (but not announced) that Tomasson was indisposed. Herlitzius was more histrionic than frightening, of the eye-rolling school of acting, and lacked power at the bottom of her range.

It's great that these HD performances exist, to show us outstanding artists in roles not currently available locally--and make no mistake, Kaufmann and Dasch gave exemplary performances. They confirm that opera is alive and well, despite the efforts of capricious directors.

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The Details

"LOHENGRIN," an opera in three acts, by Richard Wagner

Opening night, December 7, 2012, La Scala, Milan

HD performance by the "Opera in Cinema" series from Emerging Pictures, January 20, 2013

Creative Team

Conductor...Daniel Barenboim

Director...Claus Guth

Sets and costumes...Christian Schmidt

Lighting...Olaf Winter

Cast

Heinrich der Vogler...René Pape

Lohengrin...Jonas Kaufmann

Elsa von Brabant...Annette Dasch

Friedrich von Telramund...Tomas Tomasson

Ortrud...Evelyn Herlitzius

Der Heerrufer des Königs...Zeljko Lucic


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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.