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By Joel Kasow

LYON, FRANCE, 28 October 2006— It has been a long time since Lohengrin and his swan have passed my way, but the new production at the Opéra National de Lyon was in some ways worth the wait.  Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff proffered the customary "explication de texte" so that we could understand his concept, but the execution occasionally bordered on the clumsy. The magnificent sets by German architect Stephan Braunfels were so monumental that the audience unfortunately had to endure two intermissions of one hour each, though it was possible to have a meal thanks to the planning of the management.

What made the performance exceptional was the leadership of conductor Lothar Koenigs, who never lost the thread so that musical, and thereby theatrical, tension was foremost. The orchestra, smallish by today’s Wagnerian standards but probably close in size to that heard at the world premiere conducted by Franz Liszt in Weimar, did not falter, while balances were impeccable so that the text could be understood. Gunnel Bohman, a touching Jenufa a few years ago, seemed stretched by the role of Elsa, never quite flat but too often perilously close; she did, however,  project the character as Lehnhoff sees her, sometimes in a hypnotic trance (the curtain opens during the prelude, Elsa moves—Wilson-like —towards downstage right and sits in a chair staring out at the audience until her presence is actually required). Evelyn Herlitzius played Ortrud as a cross between Kundry and Cruella, her fanciful black outfit setting off Elsa’s Barbie-ish white dress in the second act. Her voice is far from conventionally beautiful but is effective, though her final imprecation seemed anything but musical.

Evelyn Herlitzius  in Wagner's Lohengrin
Photo courtesy of Opéra National de Lyon

Hugh Smith in the title role lacks stage presence—something we had noticed when he sang in Norma at Geneva a few years back—though he is definitely musical. As with Bohman, his voice unfortunately does not project particularly well. And why did the opening of Act III, the Bridal Chamber scene as it is known, show him composing at the piano to the wedding march, with Elsa in peignoir becoming increasingly perturbed in her questioning. Talk about tacky. Smith’s accented German further detracted from his performance.

Wagner's Lohengrin
Photo courtesy of Opéra National de Lyon

Tom Fox (Telramund), Brett Polegato (Herald) and the miraculous Hans Sotin (Heinrich) saved the honors, vocally and scenically all one could ask. Bettina Walter’s costumes were now the terribly cliché mish-mash of brown or black uniforms, and 1930s outfits for the women and those men not in uniform, with Lohengrin’s silver suit especially ridiculous.

But the evening belonged to Koenigs who almost single-handedly gave the performance musical distinction, while Braunfels’s magnificent but unwieldy sets provided the other positive element of the evening.

Further performances at La Scala in Milan from 17 January to 4 February 2007 with some changes in cast.


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com

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