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21 April, 2006

Lots lacking in last night's Lohengrin. But much great opera, too. Heppner, Mattila, Fink, DeVol.

Met, Lincoln Center

20 April 2006

Dear Colleagues,

The 3 long acts of Lohengrin at the Met gave us "the best of times and the worst of times". Karita Mattila, who we had the privilege of meeting briefly after the performance, was magnificent as Elsa. Her range is wide, voice sizeable and she is accurate and musical to a fault. But the production and some vocal problems made it hard to "enjoy" this Lohengrin. I recall seeing it about 6 years ago and it was an endurance then as well.

This revival still has all its elements in place, even though some changes may have been made. Gilbert and Sullivan did it for ONE single aria ('You hold yourself like this; you hold yourself like that ...' from Patience) but these singers had to "do it" for 5 hours! For every moment on stage, every performer from King to chorister had to appear stiff and stylised 'like a Japanese marionette' (Mikado). White faces of the principals and blackened faces of the chorus seemed to have no particular meaning. Hand movements were meticulously choreographed throughout. At one point in a darkened stage, all principals had ONE hand individually illuminated to no particular effect . which would have been invisible from much of the 4000 seat hall. Also, all male leads had similar facial hair and dark costumes which is impractical for such a stage work.

The opening becomes a 'Trial by Jury' scene with King Henry as judge, Elsa the accused and Telramund as plaintiff while Lohengrin (as yet unnamed and unnamable) is chief witness for the accused. The mystery witness wins the hand in marriage of Elsa ... on condition of keeping his anonymity. Could a story be more Gilbertian?

Stephen West was ill, so we heard Andrew Greenan as King Henry. But the replacement was obviously also indisposed as his voice disappeared not long after his strong opening. His low notes were inaudible and his mid range seemed to be obscured by phlegm and were garbled or gargled. He was clearly uncomfortable, as was the audience. So where was Rene Pape when we needed him? Answer: in the audience! He is scheduled to take over the part on Monday.

Mr Heppner sang strongly and acted well in the first two acts. However, when he needs to shine in Act III things were not comfortable for him, either. He seemed to be curtailing some notes, singing a few 'glottals' and indeed just about 'cracked' on one high note in his aria. As a consummate professional, he knows how to recover and control things, but this inevitably means losing some of the excitement of the piece and losing some confidence with the audience. I do not know why his final song to the swan is sung facing away from the audience. It is just another crazy decision in a crazy production.

Many of the tableaux were very beautiful, using a bright, clear background, sometimes sky blue but often multicoloured, there were silhouettes, shadows and large fluorescent boxes in the foreground but otherwise bare stage settings. The overall impression of the production was that the characters were not human, the emotion was all artificial and the story needed no telling. This is contrary to what Wagner wanted in his usually detailed stage directions and is certainly not want I want to see in the theatre. While all opera plots have ludicrous twists, the point is that these 'twists' lead to many different circumstances where great emotion can come out using singing and orchestra. And when singing these 'high points' there needs to be great freedom for the singers to put all their energies into singing. Here they were constrained severely by the direction.

I have enjoyed Lohengrin elsewhere and had hoped to be won-over by this production. But it was not to be . even from the best orchestra seats. Remarkably, there was no wedding, which had to be imagined. Telramund actually got up and walked off stage after his murder (second time unlucky) . and his body was invisible in the stretcher carried back on stage. Weird!

A delightful surprise was a wonderful performance from Luana DeVol as Ortrud. She was glorious with full throttle, ringing, high soprano voice and exemplary dramatic sense. Richard Paul Fink, another true Wagnerian, was an impressive and comparably equipped Telramund.

The orchestra under Maestro Phillippe Auguin was magnificent. He sometimes looked to have his eyes closed while conducting music he obviously knows by heart. During the wedding music opening Act III he positively jumped on his podium, enjoying every glorious second. We learned afterwards about some foibles of the Met and its new management. He also tells some spicy behind-the-scenes opera stories from Europe, Australia and beyond (is there anything beyond Australia?). He was in his element last November in the Beijing Ring from Nuremberg.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..