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Friday, January 28, 2011

CD Review: Lohengrin, Uncut

La belle dame sans merci, by J. W. Waterhouse
This was used as the original cover art for this set's 1998 release.
© 1898 The Estate of J.W. Waterhouse
In the 1990s, Daniel Barenboim recorded all ten Wagner operas for Teldec, the classical music company owned and distributed by Warner Brothers. Recorded in Berlin and Bayreuth, these recordings have been reissued by Naxos through a new distribution deal.

The 1998 recording of Lohengrin has a strong, if idiosyncratic cast. Emily Magee is an idiosyncratic, dreamy Elsa who does not match up to some of the more famous sopranos who have tackled this difficult role. However, she emerges from a dream-like state to evolve into a fully realized heroine.

Ms. Magee is well-matched with  Deborah Polaski, who is a favorite on Mr. Barenboim's recordings. Here, she is Ortrud, the villainess of the piece, and their clash in Act II makes for exciting aural theater.


Peter Seiffert is heroic in the title role, singing with noble tone. Unusually, Barenboim chooses to open the standard cut in the second stanza of "In Fernem Land." This verse gives Lohengrin's perspective on the events of the last three acts, and increases the tragic weight of the opera's final scene. And Wagnerphiles take note: this is only the second recording of Lohengrin to include the whole aria. (The cut was suggested by Wagner before the opera's premiere. He had doubts about an under-powered tenor in the title role.)

Falk Struckmann, another "regular player" in Mr. Barenboim's cast, is good, if not ideal as Telramund, the baritone villain who is caught in the machinations of his wife Ortrud's plot. He has a powerful, dark voice, and is especially strong in the big Act II duet with Ms. Polaski, as the two of them bicker beneath the castle walls and then mutually declare their villainous nature.

Mr. Barenboim is an expert Wagner conductor with pin-point control over his Staatskapelle Belin forces. He frequently uses rubato to speed and slow the pacing as needed. This pays off in Act III following the death of Telramund as the orchestra detonates with shattering force. The playing is top-drawer, as is the choral work. The choristers are crystal-clear, providing the flexible many-voiced instrument that is crucial for this opera's many public scenes.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.