Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When's the next swan?

There was negative function at the Met's Lohengrin this past Saturday, May 6. The swan did not arrive for Lohengrin's first entrance. Remember Leo Slezak's quip when the same thing happened to him? "When's the next swan?"

Even in Robert Wilson's highly symbolic staging, there is still a solitary wing that appears along with Lohengrin for his "Nun sei bedankt" (Act I). Not this time. This time, our Lohengrin, newcomer Klaus Florian Vogt, walked on as a pedestrian without any wings. Instead, his singing had the wings: This may be the most effortless assumption of Wagner's Swan Knight in my lifetime. It is not as strenuously virile as some. It does not aspire to imitate the trumpet. There is not a hint of Siegfried or Tristan in the sound. But every note -- in fact, every word -- fills the entire auditorium with the utmost clarity and without a hint of strain. It is astonishing.

In Vogt, we hear a sound like a lyric tenor, but with a consistent fullness and ring worthy of a spinto -- a good spinto. He is never covered by the orchestra. At the same time, there are exquisite phrases of a deeply personal kind and also with juice and a real shine to the tone -- and with a liquid legato. Vogt's sound doesn't blast through the orchestra with sheer heft. It floats uncannily over everything. One is dazzled and disoriented listening to him. The tone is not merely extremely lovely. It also seems closer to the ear than common sense expects. -- And one is bewildered at how such a lovely, lyric instrument can project so unfailingly well. -- And it is unmistakably a tenor sound -- in fact, a high tenor sound -- in fact, an easy high tenor sound, with nothing that seems muscled up in the tone at all. The overriding impression is of incredible focus.

Just this once, we can easily view the character as a messenger from a magic land with just a hint of the exotic. This is not merely a function of the abstract elements in Wilson's staging. Vogt inflects the words and the tone to give an aura of someone in his own space, his own reality. Even when he spares Telramund's life at the end of Act I, "Ich schenk es dir" becomes an expression partly of gentle magnanimity -- as it did in Sandor Konya's reading -- and partly of abstraction, lost in the consciousness of a higher calling, to which he must be true. Killing a man already down is something he simply cannot do.

This meditative quality pervades everything he sings. It is his own mystery, and utterly true to Wagner's music. This also illuminates the words, and Vogt's immaculate diction and his poetic sensibility transfigure Wagner's verses, making them seem like the finest dramatic poetry. One is reminded of what Tito Schipa once said about transfiguring one's words into poetry when one sings: [paraphrase] "Imagine that one's words are falling gently on one's lips like manna from above". (Carlo Bergonzi sometimes had this quality.)

Most overwhelming on Saturday was Vogt's last act. Untiring, he found the fervor and warmth needed for his love duet with Elsa, and there was both personal hurt and loving concern for Elsa in his mounting dismay as he sensed that she was getting closer and closer to asking his name. He shaped the sorrowful words after finally killing Telramund with an inwardness that recalled the murky Jean De Reszke cylinder of 1901. And in the final scene, his Narration attained a spiritual quality. In total command of his instrument, he imbued phrase after phrase with a quiet feeling of reverence and love for Monsalvat. When singing of the dove that hovers over the Grail, Vogt delivered a sustained messa di voce on "Taube" that was both astonishing and deeply moving. From the Narration, we moved to a farewell to Elsa where profound pity for her dominated (here too, he was reminiscent of Konya).

For the most part, he had worthy colleagues. Karita Mattila's Elsa was completely up to expectations, tender and radiant, with phrasing and breath control that were exemplary. It was clear that she also thrives as an actress in the contained world of Wilson's production. When the full truth of who/what Lohengrin is finally dawns on Elsa in the Narration, all that was needed to convey the full burden of how she felt was one gesture from Mattila's arm and a slackening of the shoulders. We knew her life had lost all meaning. Genius.

The other performers may not have shown such dramatic genius, but, after all, the static world of Robert Wilson is frequently a detriment to some perfectly inspired performers. It can be a blessing or a curse depending on many different factors, which frequently have nothing to do with talent. But though the drama may not have lived as vividly in others as in Mattila, song triumphed. Rene Pape's King was as sumptuously vocalized as any King of the past generation, and Richard Paul Fink's Telramund was always in command of the music and always precisely in tune -- not easy in this role with its frequently tricky, jagged vocal line. Eike Wilm Schulte's Herald started out showing (some of) his age, but his vocal authority and musical assurance were a treat by the time of his big scene in Act II. Of Luana DeVol's Ortrud, the less said the better.

Philippe Auguin's conducting was marked by great sympathy with the phrasing of the singers and relatively lean textures. He kept the music moving cleanly and purposefully. The brass, though, experienced some clunkers along the way. An exception to his lean, purposeful reading was the Bridal Chamber Scene, where, with both Vogt and Mattila in their element and thoroughly warmed up, Auguin chose to elongate some of the phrases considerably. This spectator was grateful for the opportunity to wallow in some of the most luxuriant Wagner singing in recent memory (and perhaps Auguin was doing a bit of wallowing too?), but the tension in the scene dissipated somewhat as a result -- and the stilted staging here didn't help.

Plenty was said about the Wilson production, both pro and con, when it first opened with Heppner, Polaski and Voigt eight years ago. What may never have been mentioned was the degree to which the still poses of the cast, in this highly stylized presentation, seem to owe much to a distinct school of art many centuries old. Whether or not Wilson's production works well as theater, there does seem to be an attempt to conjure up an aura of the mediaeval world where Lohengrin takes place: In the visual art of mediaeval times, perspective had not yet been mastered. Thus, with all the undeniable profundity of theme and the sheer ambition in design (not to mention a timeless mastery over color), the human figures are still one-dimensional. They seem flat, with arms and legs and hands flattened out, assuming poses that are sometimes extremely artificial, primarily because the limbs have to "exist" in positions that cannot be presented in a perspective where hands and arms stand out from the torso. They must "exist" on the same plane as the torso instead. In the process, the hands and arms themselves are flattened out, with even a finger or two spread out in an exaggerated way because there's no "room" to show some hand or arm more naturally.

This highly self-conscious placement of limbs in mediaeval art is what Wilson's production vividly recalls. He seems to be giving us sequences of visual tableaus to present Lohengrin's story. It partly suggests a mediaeval tapestry and partly an ancient illuminated manuscript. Viewing a static tapestry like this one

Medieval Tapestry

gives one a sense of how the characters are presented in this Lohengrin.

But beyond that, it is the music that reigned above all else on Saturday night. We heard so much of it truly sung -- like seeing a dim painting that has been carefully cleaned. So much of this music is beautiful. And so much of it is vocally grateful. Vogt and Mattila make it seem so easy that one might almost think it takes less effort to deliver the lines sincerely and straightforwardly, experiencing the music's feelings from the inside, than to disfigure them with a thousand self-conscious phony accents and external explosions that render the music ultimately meaningless. But if that were indeed true, more singers would sing the essence of the music as these two do. Maybe, in a way, it may take less physical effort to avoid the phony cliches that second-raters trot out, but unfortunately, it evidently takes an even rarer mastery to sustain the natural flow of a Vogt.

Mattila has already established standards in the jugendlich repertoire unmatched by anyone else of her generation. So while she enthralled, one expected that. The real surprise was Vogt, in whom we recognized a Lohengrin of exceptional integrity and musicality from a virtual unknown. He is not on the Met roster for next season. But still, we can only hope that Vogt's Swan Knight last Saturday isn't his swan song there --

-- Oh, the next swan did come in, right on time in the last act, complete with the boy Gottfried. So Leo Slezak's time-honored question got an answer.



At 5/10/2006 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended the May 6 Lohengrin and I found the singing simply a miracle - especially Klaus Florian Vogt. How could the press completely ignore such a debut? At one time I lived in NYC - I now live in West Virginia. Perhaps there are aspects of this oversight of which of which I am unaware. Would someone please explain?

At 5/11/2006 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is beautifully written & I think you were sharing my head with me during the performance.

But you phrased it so much better than my stammering attempts to tell friends about this remarkable debut.


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