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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
romantic opera in three acts (1848) [210.45]
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor)
Elsa von Brabant – Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin (baritone)
Ortrud – Katarina Dalayman (soprano)
Heinrich der Vogler – Falk Struckmann (bass)
King’s Herald – Samuel Youn (bass-baritone)
Netherlands Radio Choir (Daniel Reuss, chorus master)
Chorus of Dutch National Opera (Ching-Lien Wu, chorus master),
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live 18 & 20 December 2015 Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
German libretto and synopsis provided with English translations.
RCO LIVE RCO17002 [3 SACDs: 210:45]

Wagner’s Romantic three act opera Lohengrin holds fond memories for me. One of my most memorable nights at the opera house was in June 2016 at Semperoper, Dresden for a sell-out, first night staging of Lohengrin that one might have thought was a new production such was the level of interest. The Dresden Lohengrin was in fact a revival of the acclaimed Christine Mielitz production with Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko excelling in the main roles; both making their Wagner debuts supported by Tomasz Konieczny as Telramund and the magnificent Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud. Fingers crossed the Dresden Lohengrin becomes available on DVD/Blu-ray soon.

Based on a romantic medieval legend of the Swan Knight who liberates a princess from pagan evil forces, the music drama Lohengrin is regarded by many as Wagner’s most engaging and immediately appealing opera. An affecting story of indisputable trust, doomed love, vengeance, compassion, deliverance and the supernatural, including, pagan black magic. Although still a most substantial work it is one of Wagner’s shortest in duration, containing numerous memorable melodies in its breathtaking score.

In this Lohengrin Sir Mark Elder is conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recorded at a pair of live performances (described as semi-staged) given over a weekend in December 2015 at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Not long back from conducting a new David McVicar production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at San Francisco Opera, Elder is in fact replacing Andris Nelsons who withdrew owing to a shoulder injury. A stalwart Wagnerian, Elder was the first British conductor to conduct a new production at Bayreuth with Wolfgang Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1981. As music director of the Hallé, from 2009 Elder has been presiding over its continuing Bridgewater Hall, Manchester concert Ring cycle with only Siegfried left to perform and there was also a concert staging of Parsifal at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

Exceedingly well chosen, this experienced Wagnerian cast for Lohengrin at the Concertgebouw is one that brings significant rewards. Experienced Wagnerian Klaus Florian Vogt has sung at the Bayreuth Festival each year since 2007 including the part of Lohengrin for several seasons which has become a signature role for him. I first heard Vogt at Berlin in 2015; it was a successful concert performance of act two of Parsifal under Donald Runnicles. Here the German tenor excels in the title role of Lohengrin the mysterious knight of the Holy Grail, son of Parsifal. Demonstrating full measure of the vocal challenges Vogt sings confidently, conveying his crystal clear diction and maintaining throughout his appealing sweet high register. The tenor’s delivery feels practically effortless and in his renowned arias Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan and In fernem Land (Gralserzählung) although his tone has a slight monochrome quality he readily conveys the essential qualities of tenderness and sincerity as the love struck hero. Hardly less arresting is Camilla Nylund clearly relishing the role of Elsa the maiden in distress who is falsely blamed for murdering her brother. In 2014 I heard Camilla Nylund, who has appeared for several seasons at Bayreuth, sing so impressively in a challenging programme of Richard Strauss orchestral songs at a Gala concert at Dresden. Here the Finnish soprano shows her versatility taking full control of her large weighty voice. She brings the necessary amount of innocence, the weight of burden over her accusation and vestiges of doubt about the origins of Lohengrin to the role, singing with dramatic expression revealing her creamy, smooth tone. A highlight is her ravishingly tender rendition of Einsam in trüben Tagen as she relates her dream of being saved by a knight travelling in a boat pulled by swans and in the final section Hört, was dem Gottgesandten her dramatic voice exalts that Lohengrin can have both her hand in marriage and the crown.

The most formidable portrayal of Ortrud that I have seen on video is Leonie Rysanek’s performances at Wiener Staatsoper (1985) under Horst Stein and at the Metropolitan Opera (1986) conducted by James Levine. Stepping confidently up to the plate skilled Wagnerian Katarina Dalayman makes a convincingly malicious and suitably odious sorceress who is at the centre of the storyline. This is a well characterised performance from the Swedish dramatic soprano maintaining her weighty rounded tone and expressive intensity although there is some unsteadiness at times. Especially striking is her dramatically thrilling performance of Entweihte Götter (Ortrud’s curse). Evgeny Nikitin who controversially withdrew from the Bayreuth Festival in 2012 over a tattoo is a practised Wagnerian. The Russian bass-baritone sings the role of Friedrich von Telramund impressively with his rich, steady voice that does lose some weight as it narrows in the top register. Worthy of admiration too is Falk Struckmann taking the part of King Heinrich der Vogler who is in Brabant recruiting troops to fight the Hungarians. Mature sounding German bass Struckmann who debuted at Bayreuth back in 1993 is dramatically expressive conveying a suitably convincing regal quality able to render his high notes most effectively. It was Samuel Youn who replaced Evgeny Nikitin at Bayreuth in 2012 and here as king’s Herald the reliable South Korean bass-baritone does all that is asked of him.

Masterly is Elder’s conducting, demonstrating a clear vision of the overall structure and substance of the three act score. Suiting the proceedings remarkably well the steady unforced tempi adopted by Elder allowed the music ample time to breath. There is overriding unity to the playing of this magnificent orchestra together with an elevated proficiency of touch and detail that never comes at the expense of expression. Elder’s forces combine to produce a remarkable sense of dramatic tension and abundant grandeur in the climaxes with results that never feel overblown. Remarkably consistent throughout, the expressive strings at times produce a rarely achieved weeping quality and the unified brass sound remarkable too. Stunningly played with authority are the substantial orchestral passages including the trumpet fanfare to Heil König Heinrich! From their first note to their last the combined professional choruses of the Netherlands Radio Choir and Chorus of Dutch National Opera perform persuasively creating a remarkable sound that adds considerably to the drama.

Recorded live at Concertgebouw the sound quality of this own-label hybrid multichannel SACD is vividly clear although the orchestra in the forte passages is just a tad too forwardly placed over the solo singers for my taste. The audience applause at the conclusion of each act has been retained and included in the timings. Appreciation is owed to the label for providing the full German libretto with an English translation in the booklet. There is also an essay and a synopsis written by Marijke Schouten together with some performance photographs. All in all the recording is extremely well presented. Another valuable resource worth obtaining is the ENO Opera Guide to Lohengrin.

A number of Lohengrin recordings I have known for some time, although none ideal include Joseph Keilberth/1953/Bayreuth/Teldec, André Cluytens/1958/Bayreuth/ Melodram, Rudolf Kempe/1963-64/Vienna/EMI and Georg Solti/1985-86/Vienna/Decca and Daniel Barenboim/1996/Berlin/Teldec. On balance this satisfying live performance from Elder at Concertgebouw is the one I will reach for first.

Under Sir Mark Elder this exceptional and compelling live recording of Lohengrin from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam is one to live with and treasure.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Simon Thompson



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