If you made me chose between repertory up to Mozart or after Mozart, it would be the former. If I had to pick within the 19th century, I would choose belcanto over romantic opera. And even when settled within romantic opera, I’d likely pick Verdi over Wagner. That said, a well-played Wagner can haunt my ears for days and the fact that I’m still whistling the Bridal Choir (of all the possibilities!) two days later say something about the recent Frankfurt “Lohengrin”.
The seasoned Jens-Daniel Herzog staging is, at last at this point, not up to the Frankfurt level of smarts when it comes to directing – it meanders along in an uncommitted vision of a 1940 or 1950s cinema hall (or train station waiting hall, or secularized church?) as Swan Vague. The arrival of the Swan is a running movie projector of which we only the the focus light as the personnel on stage glances outwards at the audience as if at the screen. It is one of quite a few intriguing ideas in this evening that are, however, never allowed to build up to anything. Lohengrin as a sort of Hulk Lohe who responds to the calling as if possessed, a social outcast who looks like a clochard, the only one able to react outside of political convention: another intriguing thought that was never followed up on.
Instead, Elsa goes to the movies and Gottfried, the little brother with his toy sword and toy trumpet, runs away and gets lost – in the very end, one of the janitors carries him back in; he slides back into his seat next Elsa, who possibly just has hallucinated the whole story, but this frame is not referenced at any other point in the evening (at least not that I could see this week).
There are strong moments, though, like Telramund, the tragic hero of this evening, who is hopelessly in love with Elsa and always rejected: He is hazed and humiliated by the crowd (though the concrete images – waterboarding and then forcing him into a red pair of women’s heels – could have been less lazy) as the choir sings of military success and following its leader (Hoch der ersehnte Mann! / Heil ihm, den Gott gesandt! / Treu sind wir untertan / dem Schützer von Brabant!): a poignant commentary on militarist heroic glory always being established by violence against an othered scapegoat.
This battered Telramund then is trying to walk out of the church, and crosses paths with Elsa in her wedding gown who marches in, in a manner both self-righteous and ingenue: the way those two moved past each other, with Telramund not daring to look up, was perhaps the strongest image of the entire show.
Musically, the evening was a mixed bag, with the lyrical parts carrying better than the dramatic ones. The pit under Stefan Blunier gave a beautiful reading of the prelude, and there were minutes throughout that sparkled and shone, but it was not a consistent dazzle. The best pulpits, to me, were the trombones who drew my focus at various points in the evening. The choir work was mostly clean, but not gripping – anything that was measured or lyrical worked fine, but e.g. the arrival of Lohengrin didn’t have the breathless enthusiasm that makes the moment so intoxicating. The most bewitching choir delivery of the evening went to the female solo quartet. Beautifully done!
From the soloists, Vincent Wolfsteiner (Lohengrin) was announced as battling the remnants of the flu, which was starkly apparent in his very first lines (and those are some mean and exposed phrases even if you do not battle the flu). He built up momentum during the night, though, and arrived at a convincing Grail Narration, with flowing, if not effortless, tone.
Annette Dasch, slated as Elsa, had to cancel on very short notice. That’s the bad news. Oper Frankfurt managed to arrange a hasty house debut for Manuela Uhl in turn, who stepped in. That’s the good news, since Uhl offered the most convincing vocal portrayal of the evening. Her voice is not as big as Dasch’s (the operatic gentleman at my side muttered, “which soubretta competition did she win?”), though more mellow and pliant. Some middle range phrases didn’t carry – the core is simply less substantial -, but when she gets to place her phrase properly on the breath, her voice – which is bright and more lyrical in timbre – has an appealing gleam and organic vibrato. If she has to strain, the vibrato turns mechanic, and thins her tone. “In meines Vaters Landen / die Krone trage er” e.g. hit the perfect spot – jubilant, unforced and with just enough weight. If the whole night had gone like this, I’d have been salivating in bliss off the third balcony.
The Heerrufer of James Rutherford did not live up to his Sachs of previous years. He sings with a good grasp on Wagnerian diction and when the pit eased up, his lines were among the most interesting because he worked from text, not sound, but he unfortunately had to bellow and battle tightness. The Heinrich of Andreas Bauer worked the other way around: pleasantly streaming, anchored sound, unless he was placed at the very end of the stage – at time overpowered, and losing flexibility when he had to push.
I’m still torn on the Telramund of Robert Hayward, who showed beauty more in phrasing than in tone and managed to give a very sympathetic, increasingly complex portrayal of the role, but lost this appeal in the louder passages, where the tone bordered on lackluster and harsh. Still, a few days after the show, it is his scenic contribution that seems to stick with me.
My first reason to see a “Lohengrin” is usually the Ortrud – give me some scenery-chewing mezzo power in Act 2 and I’ll call it a night well spent. (Yes, I am that shallow.)
The last time I heard Sabine Hogrefe must have been a good decade ago, when she was still singing the “Figaro” Countess or the “Freischütz” Agathe. She continues to have good scenic presence and the staging gave her space to work: looking like a lost AU “Xena” episode where Xena goes undercover as an evil apparatschik (with regards to Cate Blanchett in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), Ortrud skulks across the scene and Hogrefe really worked the seduction of Elsa beneath the balcony (which is already utterly queer to begin with). It was a delight to watch. Vocally, Hogrefe had to put in a lot of work. Her voice has expanded downward organically in the past dozen years and her lower middle range is dark and round and attractive, with no bellowing. It didn’t reach as much across the pit at times, which was unfortunate because her most interesting and appealing work with the score happened there. The top notes are still there, but they are distinctively metallic, with an edge of shrillness if she has to push in the ff outbreaks. Still, I found her take to be an overall engaging portrayal – with the focus less on a roaring “Entweihte Götter!”, and more on “Hier, zu deinen Füßen” (which, truly, was not the worst place to be on this evening).
The night after the Lohengrin, “Stiffelio” was on, and I walked past the opera house as it ran – and apparently, Oper Frankfurt is broadcast its shows via speakers to the street? Props to you, Frankfurt. And as I walked on, matching my steps to the hum-ta-ta-ta-ta hum-ta-ta-ta of the minute, I found myself thinking “I have been whistling that darn Bridal Choir and “Macht Platz für Elsa, unsere Frau” all day, but in a pinch, I would still choose Verdi on most nights…”