Richard Wagner is a fundamental composer in any opera season. But we´ve had no performances from this great creator´s works in our city since 2005 ("Die Walküre"). There was an absurd announcement back in 2008 about a "Lohengrin" in 2009, but the only possible venue (the Coliseo) wasn´t accepted by Horacio Sanguinetti. Now Pedro Pablo García Caffi has programmed it and we finally have Wagner after six long years.
Alas, we had a "Lohengrin" without a Lohengrin. Three tenors came this year to Buenos Aires and went back without singing their assigned roles: Patrick Henckens in "The Magic Flute", Andrew Richards in "Simone Boccanegra" and Michael Hendrick in "Lohengrin". Ill health or incapacity were the apparent reasons; ¿bad luck or bad choices? And if the latter, shouldn´t García Caffi be better informed? As it happens, the replacement for Hendrick, John Horton Murray, was a disaster in the first performance. Still another tenor, reportedly better though small-voiced, Richard Crawley, took over in the second and third performances (the fourth and fifth are still to come).
Good casts are generally hired three years ahead, but here they do it only months before, so we have what is available. But even so, good advising could surely avoid so many mistakes.
Our last "Lohengrin" was in 1991, and the others in my Colón experience were in 1979, 1964 and in 1951, when I was twelve. Even in that first experience, I was vividly impressed by this wonderful work; I also saw performances in Vienna (twice) and DVDs from the Met, as well as heard several recordings. I am struck by two main qualities: its intense lyricism, so melodic that during many decades it attracted Italian singers who did the main part in Italian (both Caruso and Gigli sang it in BA though not at the Colón); and its marvelous use of rhetoric: the ample concerted pieces or the heightened recitatives are very exciting. There is also the authentic aura of mysticism of the shimmering Prelude to Act One, as well as the famous Wedding March.
But the darker side is very strong too: for "Lohengrin" concerns basically the battle between Christianity and paganism, as shown by the invocation of Ortrud to Wotan and Freia (a fantastic outburst). We are deep in the Middle Ages (Brabant –a region of modern Belgium- around 960), an age where religion mixed freely with magic. Ortrud manipulates her husband Telramund to claim the Duchy of Brabant by a false accusation which will be solved by a joust (the Judgment of God) between Elsa´s knight Lohengrin and Telramund.
Two members of the cast were outstanding: Ann Petersen (debut) as Elsa and James Johnson as Telramund. A tall beautiful Dane, Petersen looked and sounded the part, with a luminous voice of the right type, a nice line and convincing acting. James Johnson, who sang last year in Zemlinsky´s "A Florentine tragedy", is one of the best character baritones; with adequate makeup and black costume, he sang with dramatic impulse and technical skill a high, anguished role. Twenty years ago Kurt Rydl was a distinguished bass; now his enormous vibrato ruins any attempt of line, but he is still an imposing presence. Janina Baechle (debut), exceeded in weight, was a relatively good Ortrud, for she can act, but had trouble with the frequent very high "tessitura" for a mezzo. Gustavo Feulien was a nondescript Herald, a part that needs better color and projection. As to Horton Murray, after two desultory acts where neither vocally nor in demeanor was he a Lohengrin, calamity struck with a croak as he sang "Grail" (¡) and from then on he coasted singing an octave lower.
Conductor Ira Levin (debut), an American with a varied and long career, gave a mixed impression. The Orchestra, which had played very well recently in the "Trittico", was uneven, shockingly so in the glassy beginning of the opera. But things gradually jelled and by the time of the huge "concertante" near the end of the First Act Levin seemed fully in command. From then on, there were imbalances here and there but also some very good moments. No less than 33 players made up the offstage band (led by Guillermo Brizzio) that included 12 trumpets. With an augmented Choir (led by Peter Burian) who sang with lusty vigor (at times rather shouty), there was excitement aplenty though not always subtlety where needed.
Roberto Oswald is our most seasoned Wagnerian. He had been responsible for the production of 1979 and for the stage designs of 1964 (with Pöttgen). Now, with the collaboration of Christian Prego, he did the production, stage designs and lighting, and Aníbal Lápiz created the costumes. The results were often beautiful, with symbolist aspects acknowledged by Oswald in a statement in the hand programme. Influenced by the Art Nouveau with some rather kitschy colors and details now and then, the proceedings went smoothly, with Oswald´s hallowed symmetry, blessedly free from the ridiculous concepts of recent Germanic stagings (a chorus of mice in Bayreuth or of birds in Vienna). I disliked the small helmets worn by the soldiers and Lohengrin, as well as his costume, but others were fine, especially Elsa´s gowns. The swan appeared hazily as a projection. I liked the cathedral´s tympan, inspired by Autun´s, though not the mixture of styles inside the church. There was a very pleasant blue curtain drop.