Last time we came to Berlin, it was to hear the man himself work his magic with Wagner's Ring, so it was good to hear him flex those same muscles again, this time in a new production of Lohengrin.
The title role had gone through several changes. Initially it was to be filled by Marco Jentzsch who did not impress as Walther in Glyndebourne's Meistersinger, then a few weeks before the run began it was announced that Klaus Florian Vogt would take his place. Unfortunately, the morning of the performance we attended found Vogt indisposed and Stefan Vinke standing in for him. You would not have known from his performance, so assured was his command both of the staging and of the vocal part. There were occasional cracks in his voice but overall not much to quibble about in a strong reading. Most crucially, he held sufficient force in reserve to deliver a powerful final scene.
The evening's other vocal star was the Ortrud of Petra Lang who both sang well and was a fearsome dramatic presence as she wound her husband, and attempted to wind Elsa, around her finger. The other parts were fairly well taken, if not outstanding. Albert Dohmen's Heinrich, though not the best interpretation of the role you will hear, was solid and a suitably regal presence on the stage; he certainly didn't deserve the boos he received from one or two especially vocal audience members. Bastiaan Everink made the most of his role as the king's herald. Gordon Hawkins was the weakest of the principals as Friedrich von Telramund, but he gave no major cause for complaint.
Under William Spaulding, the Deutsche Oper chorus are indeed a fine instrument and one we didn't really get to witness all that fully on our last visit. Lohengrin gave them a much greater workout and they acquitted themselves superbly, providing a weighty vocal presence in their scenes. It is only a slight shame that at a few moments, such as the fussiness of the bridesmaids, they were over-directed.
The orchestra were on similarly fine form for Runnicles, whose mastery of Wagner's music was much in evidence. With a strong sense of the music's structure, he built the climaxes naturally and brought out the full range of orchestral colour. This being Runnicles one expects him to have fun with his placement of offstage instruments, and he did not disappoint. Early on brass could be heard from various places back stage, but he outdid himself before the final scene with brass and drums placed quadraphonically on two high balconies on either side of the stage and at the front of the upper circle. It was quite an effect to be in the presence of.
The evening's main problems came in the form of Kasper Holten's production. In setting it was timeless, something that generally works well in Wagner. This was most evident with the chorus, costumed as soldiers from all Germany's wars. Often it was very sparse, with a fairly empty stage and minimal set. And when so it was effective, reinforcing a view I hold that often if you have decent singers who can act, together with a fine orchestra, this can be an extremely satisfying approach. Perhaps this was true nowhere more so than at the start of act two, where a large cross hung in the background, lowered to become Elsa's balcony, and later afforded Friedrich cover while he watched the crowd denounce him. The swan silhouetted on the backdrop worked well too, as did Lohengrin's arrival, wings held over his arm to give the look of a swan transporting him. He then hoisted these onto his back, giving him an angelic look, which was often accentuated by solitary and harsh white illumination. In the final scene, as he revealed his identity, the chorus gathered around him in awe. Yet this was slightly spoilt by his appearing to read from cue cards (surely not his wedding speech as he and the bride had already hastened to their wedding night). Perhaps, as one of our party suggested, they were photographs reminding him of home. Whatever the actual explanation, their purpose was unclear and their effect negative.
Sadly, every now and then, 'clever' ideas like this seemed to intrude which didn't always make sense or fit together into a coherent whole. There was the chalk outline on the floor (presumably intended to indicate that Elsa's brother had been murdered) or the setting of the wedding in what looked like a theatre. This last did provide a good means of quickly and neatly dividing the action between scenes, but it wasn't entirely clear what was being said - perhaps that such weddings are just theatre. Probably most controversial was the inversion of the text at the end, with Gotfried not being returned fully to life after his time as a swan, but rather being laid on the alter as a seemingly dead and emaciated form.
While such quirks of the production did puzzle, and robbed the work of the full dramatic impact it might have had, they weren't the sort of thing to get the blood boiling and weren't too intrusive. Most importantly, they didn't stop it from being a very satisfying evening musically.
Intermezzo has some good photos of the production.