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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Recordings Review: The Land of Might-Have-Been

The 1998 Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
On the wing: Ben Heppner' makes his entrance in Act I of Lohengrin.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 1998 The Metropolitan Opera.
I don't always have time on this blog to write about opera recordings, and the huge back-log I've developed (from not having time to write recording reviews!) makes it all the more difficult. However, I wanted to take a few minutes to write up the recording I've been spending the last two days listening to: a 1998 live performance of Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera. The set is of interest not only for its high quality as a Wagner performance, but for its pairing of Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner, who were the intended stars of the company's new Robert Lepage production of the Ring. (In the end, Ms. Voigt sang the performances, but Mr. Heppner withdrew the role of Siegfried from his repertory.)

This four-disc set, released initially only as part of the massive 2010 box of rare recordings issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of James Levine's tenure at the Met, is a complete and live performance of the opera that was broadcast on March 21, 1998 during the initial run of the Met's Robert Wilson production of the Wagner opera. (The set comes in a cardboard Digi-Pak with photographs of the production. There is a tiny booklet and no libretto.) It is a valuable document capturing the high standard of Wagner performances that were a regular feature of the Met in the 1990s under Mr. Levine's guidance.

Soprano Deborah Voigt is captured here at her prime: with the round, sweet tone that made her a compelling artist at this point in her career. Her quiet innocence at her entry builds to the narration with careful aid from Mr. Levine, rising to a great height. (She used the same technique when singing Sieglinde around thi same period.) For the ensembles and heroic moments, Ms. Voigt unsheathes a bright-edged tone that is compelling and never shrill. It was performances like this that convinced the opera world that she could (and eventually would) sing Brunnhilde.

Like Ms. Voigt, Ben Heppner is captured here at a career peak, with a steely, somewhat dry tone that makes Lohengrin truly sound like he comes from another place. This was his second recording of the opera, and the singer's commitment to the part is clear. Bright, ringing high notes are delivered with gusto. He saves his best singing for the third act: the confrontation with Elsa followed by the onstage fight with Telramund and his boys. The familiar concert piece "In fernem Land" follows, delivered expertly and compellingly.

Lohengrin needs great villain to make the second act work. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen is effective enough as Telramund, but the voice turns harsh and petulant when having to declaim over the thundering orchestra at the end of Act II. Deborah Polaski, a Brunnhilde in her own right, is a hell-bent presence as Ortrud,  although one wishes for a little more sarcasm as she berates her husband. A wide ugly vibrato emerges when she sings full out, but she still rises and pushes over the orchestra playing full blast.

Eric Halfvarson is a firm, resonant King Heinrich. Elke Wilm Schulte, who seems to have carved his career playing the Herald in this opera, is everything he should be in the part. The Met chorus is even better, a single unit of Brabantine onlookers that becomes an instrument of considerable power and weight. Finally, this live recording is helped by Robert Wilson's minimalist production: the lack of stage movement and slow shuffling steps of the actors means that there is almost no stage noise to disrupt the flow of the music.

This is a rich, well-conducted Lohengrin , mixed to recreate the same left-right acoustic that one would have heard in the house. (I was at one of these performances.) James Levine combines experience and enthusiasm to lead an orchestra ready to obey his every command. Listen to the diaphanous strings that open the Prelude, the woodwind playing in the second act, and the surging lower brass that emerges every time Lohengrin makes an entrance. However, what really works here is Mr. Levine's ability to drive the narrative, charging into the big polyphonic choruses at speed and making the whole story propel forward even through the dullest stretches of this score. 

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