Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006
More on LOHENGRIN at the Met

Composite of stills from the Robert Wilson production, taken ca. 1998

Upper left: King Henry (Eric Halfvarson) presides over engagement of Lohengrin (Ben Heppner) and Elsa (Deborah Voigt)

Upper right: finale of Act II -- Ortrud (Deborah Polaski) pulls a red curtain of doubt over the faith-based proceedings

Lower left: Lohengrin and Elsa

Lower right: Act I -- arrival of Lohengrin in swan-drawn boat


OK, why do I like this production, given that I tend to be a production traditionalist (e.g. I love the Met's current RING, which is a defiant throwback to 19th century romantic stage realism?)

One reason is that LOHENGRIN has a dream-like quality that traditional productions sometimes work against.

Another is that LOHENGRIN is highly ritualized: much of the action takes place in public ceremonies in the presence of a king (viz., King Henry "the Fowler," ca. A.D. 900). It's always a challenge to keep the chorus busy; its role is always in danger of slipping into Gibert & Sullivan mode, echoing the words of one principal and exhorting another to respond. (I was once in the chorus in G&S's RUDDIGORE, and when I think back to singing "Ah base one!" at Robin, it's difficult not to think of the LOHENGRIN chorus giving Telramund what-for in Act II. And Act I is always in danger of degenerating quickly, after the ethereal prelude, into "If you want to know who we are/We are nobles of Brabant....")

Now, the nobles of Brabant in Wilson's production are costumed rather traditionally (helmets, spears), but they are almost entirely immobile. Because of this, their few movements are vested with significance. E.g., their nervous shifting of spears in Act I when Telramund tells them and the King: "...and so I took a nobler wife -- Ortrud, daughter of the princes of Frisia." The Christian nobles of Brabant know what that means: Frisia is still largely pagan, due to the efforts of Ortrud's ancestor Radbod.

Besides the spare, light-driven sets (described by various critics as "minimalist" and "expressionist"), the other main feature of Wilson's production is the rigid, stylized movement of the main characters. Actually, their poses are similar to what one sees in medieval illuminations, or in pre-Raphaelite paintings based thereon. So that's the combination: arch-modern sets, neo-medieval movements.

It totally works; what else can I say.

Now, about our tenor's debut: at the May 3 performance, the title role was taken not by Ben Heppner, but by a young man new to the Met named (to give him his preferred professional name) Klaus Florian Vogt.

The voice is truly remarkable. With any Wagnerian tenor, the first thing you notice is where he fits on the continuum from baritonal-tenor (like Lauritz Melchior) to the lighter sound a pure tenor (the latter is rare in Wagner, but examples might be Wolfgang Windgassen or Set Svanholm). It's always a question of how much baritonal quality will be mixed into the tenor sound, like -- oh, I don't know, like pure absinthe mixed into the sweetened water.

Well, Vogt has the most lyrical, pure-tenor sound I've ever heard in Wagner. "No baritonale at all!" one of my companions remarked after Act I. Yet he, like all of us, was impressed. You see, it's not that light-colored voices like his are unknown in opera: it's just that they stick to lighter repertory, not Wagner. Their home is the bel canto period, especially comic roles like Count Almaviva in Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE.

What Vogt offers is that light sound accompanied by Wagnerian volume. Imagine a tenore leggero like Cesare Valletti or Tito Schipa, and then imagine that the voice has the power to cut effortlessly through the forces of a Wagnerian chorus, orchestra, and rival principals, on the scale the Met is accustomed to deploying.

He was a huge hit. When he floated that soft phrase "von Himmel eine Taube" in In Fernem Land, the already profound audience silence became noticeably deeper. At curtain calls, the yells for Vogt outdid even those for the well-received ladies (Margaret Jane Wray, whose Ortrud I commented on earlier, and Karita Mattila, repeating her stellar Elsa).

Is he the perfect Lohengrin? I don't know: certain moments in the role need a little more steel in the voice, such as was/is provided by other light-voiced Lohengrins, such as Sandor Konya, or Peter Seiffert (whom I'm listening to right now). But Vogt is certainly impressive. He'd be ideal in other lyrical Wagner roles: Erik, Walther, Parsifal, and either Loge or Froh. All of these he's already done, according to his program bio. This also says he has done Siegmund in DIE WALKĂśRE: I dunno, I think his voice is too light for that heavy and low-ranging part.

Honorable mention goes as well to Greer Grimsley, our Telramund. He's a Heldenbariton with a dark, barbarian sound that almost out-bassed our King Henry, Rene Pape, who sounds great but is rapidly evolving toward the bass-baritone realm.

Klaus Vogt: light, not "lite"!

(Many thanks to GGB for his company and the tickets, and for the new friends he introduced me to!)