Monday, May 21, 2012


WAGNER: LOHENGRIN  (New Production)
Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
17 MAY 2012 


© Sam H. Shirakawa

Endrik Wottrich, Andrea Baker

Musikalische LeitungMarc Piollet
InszenierungKirsten Harms
Bühne und KostümeBernd Damovsky
ChoreinstudierungAnton Tremmel
DramaturgieKarin Dietrich
Heinrich der VoglerAlbert Pesendorfer
LohengrinEndrik Wottrich
Elsa von BrabantLydia Easley
OrtrudAndrea Baker
Friedrich von TelramundTómas Tómasson
Der Heerrufer des KönigsJoachim Goltz

What is it about the singing voice that enables some vocalists to soothe the listener’s ear, even when their throats are ailing?  

The thought occurred to me several times on 17 May, during a performance of Lohengrin in Wiesbaden, as star tenor Endrik Wottrich carried on
persuasively with the eponymous role in spite of a nasty cold. Wottrich’s mega-sniffle also brought to mind an interview he gave to The Guardian a couple of years ago, in which he blasted the abusive lengths to which opera singers are frequently driven in order to perform. I have no idea, whether he took a swig of codeine before a stage elevator brought him to the surface of the stage, but he showed virtually no sign of distress until he began to traverse “Höchstes Vertrauen...” in the Bridal Chamber Scene. He managed to get through it as well as the crucial final scene of the opera, by negotiating Lohengrin’s two vocally demanding back-to-back perorations from “above the voice.”

Despite the distress under which he manifestly was laboring in the final scenes, he ended up delivering a deeply compelling performance of the Swan Knight. His near-baritonal Lohengrin makes comparisons with lighter voices gaining attention with the role at the moment inevitable but odious, so I won’t go there. Wottrich -- colds notwithstanding -- is a superb son of Parsifal, essaying both power and tenderness with effortless precision in diction and unerring accuracy in pitch. Yes, some of the notes in the third act were on the squally side, but no, they never strayed off center.

Lydia Easley
It took Lydia Easley most of the first act to find her vocal footing, but her Elsa became increasingly convincing thereafter. Hers is a large soprano whose flexibility at the top of her range rendered Elsa’s apostrophe to the night air in the second act quite moving. She came into her own in the third act when she gave Elsa’s inquisitiveness unusual sensuality.

Probably owing to noticeable breaks between registers, Andrea Baker essayed a huge brassy voice, wily temperament and laser-sharp intonation as a Lady Macbeth-like Ortrud.  She moved about the stage like a caged tigress and sang as though she were Rita Gorr on amphetamines.  

Baker was matched perfectly with Tómas Tómasson, stepping in on short notice for the indisposed Thomas de Vries. Tómasson displayed a surprisingly virile Telramund both in tone and inflection.  A critic hearing Albert Pesendorfer at the first performance, described his König Heinrich as “raw but powerful,” but I found him magisterial. Joachim Goltz was a clarion Herald.

Marc Piollet

Wiesbaden’s out-going General Music Director Marc Piollet kept the musical proceedings under a firm grip, possibly increasing the tension, by conducting without a baton. While he drew some finely spun textures from the orchestra, I found the dynamic range he produced occasionally lacking in genuine pianissimi.

Kirsten Harms’ new production, which, incidentally, opened this year’s Wiesbaden May Festival, shifts Wagner’s plot from the middle ages to a mid-19th century framework, that includes a wide shallow reception hall, designed by Bernd Domovsky (reportedly Harms' partner). Here the ancient Germanic male-dominated mores are played out to ensure the failure of Lohengrin’s threat of a new order through Ortrud’s exploitation of Elsa’s bourgeois reluctance to go with the flow: Your Name I Must Know, E'er my Gams be Crossed!

The performance I attended was the last of only two this season. Budget constraints? The production deserves to be revived. 

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau 1925-2012
Now a brief farewell to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last week at the age of 86. While the death of Luciano Pavarotti may have commanded more ballyhoo, Fischer-Dieskau's passing received more than ample attention from the international press. Surprising, given that he was a celebrity only to those in the know, but they were legion. I remember recognizing him from an angle one morning in the late 1970s, as he walked down Broadway toward Avery Fisher Hall, where he was to appear in a concert that evening. Several people walking toward him waved or smiled or greeted him with "I'll be there!" and "Good luck tonight!" To which he responded with a perfunctory nod as he ambled diagonally across West 65th Street toward the stage door. Yes, a lot of people knew who he was, even though he had never sung at the Met and was known primarily as a Lieder singer.

I heard him only five times -- Mandryka and Falstaff at Covent Garden, the first of two farewell hommages to Gerald Moore (with Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) at the Royal Festival Hall, a Winterreise Cycle in Philadelphia in 1972, and Mandryka again at the 1977 Munich Opera Festival. Among them, I remember his Philadelphia appearance most vividly. At the time, I was undergoing a difficult period that I thought would never end. Somehow, I began to feel better about myself as palpable streams of legato emanating from the stage wafted toward the uppermost rung of the Academy of Music, where I was sitting. It wasn't his clarity of enunciation that moved me, nor for that matter his manner of phrasing, at once so simple, yet inevitable. It was the sheer sound of that voice, unique and inimitable. Coincidence maybe, but my life took a turn for the better shortly thereafter.

In the late 1990s, I talked with him at his home in Berlin-West End about his career and collaborators, among them Wilhelm Furtwängler, who he especially admired. What stays with me about that long conversation has nothing to do with what he said, which was plenty. Rather, it was his demeanor and the design of his home. From the outside, the house looked quite ordinary, fronted with a lawn bisected by a path from the front door to the sidewalk. Once inside, though, I found myself in a long wide hallway with one door leading to apparently private quarters, another opening into a recital room. Although I was not invited to see the rest of the house, I could sense that it was incrementally immense, becoming larger with each step I took.

Even more surprising, though, was his behavior. I had been led to believe that he was not an especially cordial person, and there was plenty of evidence that he could be curt with queries he deemed unworthy of answering. But Fischer-Dieskau could not have been friendlier, greeting me at the front door himself, indroducing me to his wife Julia Varady, offering me refreshment before beginning our conversation -- everything to make me feel welcome.

Several years afterword, I attended an orchestral concert in Berlin that he was set to conduct. He cancelled at the last minute. I went back to my quarters and played his recording of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen under Furtwängler. Upon hearing of his death last week, I started playing it again. I got as far as "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld..." Some time soon, I want to play the rest of it.

Rest in Peace.

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