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Saturday, September 5, 2015

DVD Review: Schwann vs. Schwann

Two Bayreuth Lohengrins offer very different takes on Wagner's mythic opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cheryl Studer, Manfred Schenk and Paul Frey in Lohengrin.
Back in the misty era known as the 1990s, a humble young journalism student would go to the Tower Records in Boston and rent VHS opera performances, mostly released on the Philips label. Among those videos: two vastly different stagings of the Wagner opera Lohengrin from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, filmed eight years apart. Universal Classics has acquired the rights to the Philips catalogue, and has re-released both performances on DVD under the DG imprint.

The Act III Grail Narration from the Götz Friedrich production of Lohengrin

Gunther Uecker, the artist best known for his wood-and-nails sculptures, collaborated with iconoclastic director Gotz Friedrich to create a Lohengrin unlike any seen before. The opera is set in a futuristic torture chamber, its floor covered with a giant lead sheet, that looks like a leftover set from Star Wars.

Lead poisoning: Elizabeth Connell, Karan Armstrong, Peter Hofmann and Bernd Weikl in Lohengrin.
Image © Unitel/Universal Classics.
This is a high-tech, sci-fi world, where King Henry's Herald (Bernd Weikl) wields a ten-foot-long TV antenna and the King himself looks ready to take on Flash Gordon. When Lohegrin (Peter Hofmann) makes his grand entrance he steps out of a revolving, sparkling disc of light--in reality a spinning solid wooden wheel covered by Uecker's trademark nailheads.

Unfortunately the cast does not live up to the production. Peter Hoffmann was the Johnny Bravo of would-be heldentenors. Tall. Blond. Studly. Looked great with his shirt off in the 1976 Die Walküre. But here in 1981, he was already on the down-slope, his voice pinched and reedy in the upper register needed for this role. But boy, he sure looks good in that armor!

Karan Armstrong and a young Elizabeth Connell are an effective, sisterly Elsa and Ortrud, two sides of the same coin. Leif Roar lives up to his name as Telramund. The choral work, under the direction of Wolfgang Pitz, is superb, as one would expect at Bayreuth.
Lohengrin's laser-driven entrance in Act I of the Herzog production at Bayreuth.

Werner Herzog's production replaced the Friedrich in 1987. Herzog moves the opera to the winter, setting the action in a frozen wasteland more suited to The Golden Compass than the fields and castles of Brabant. This Lohengrin has a tribal, neo-pagan feel to it, with Telramund (Ekkehard Wlaschiha) decked out in furs and Ortrud (Gabriele Schnaut) as a primal priestess. It is also notable for its early use of onstage lasers and smoke, being one of the first opera productions at Bayreuth to add rock concert-style technology to its staging of the opera.

The singers are pretty solid across the board. Paul Frey is almost as good-looking as Peter Hoffmann, a dark, handsome Swan Knight with a better tenor. Cheryl Studer hits her brief peak as Elsa. Manfred Schenk, an underrated bass, is a phenomenal King Heinrich. As the Telramunds, Wlaschiha and Schnaut are both snarling and over the top. Schnaut actually does her Act II invocation to the pagan gods while standing shin-deep in an onstage water-tank. All the vocal principals are a considerable upgrade over the earlier production.

The earlier performance (Friedrich) is better, with more fire coming out of the pit under Woldemar Nelsson. In the Herzog, Peter Schneider conducts. He was brought in to replace another conductor at the last minute, and does not sound as confident or driven. Schneider maintains a solid, foursquare beat, he knows this opera back-to-front, but he does not compete with the three big K's (Kempe, Kubelik, and Keilberth.)

A final note: both of these productions were once available on CD during the classical boom of the '90s, the Friedrich/Hoffman/Armstrong from CBS Masterworks, the '90 from Philips. It should say something about their general quality that while the DVDs have been re-issued, the audio recordings remain deleted.
All video content © Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group. Reposted from YouTube. Used for promotional purpose only.
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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.