Brilliance and Vapidity in Abbado’s Lohengrin

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

For those of you who are tired of watching productions of this opera that are either inhabited by rats or feature Lohengrin and Elsa building a house, this 1990 Vienna State Opera reading may do the trick. Or, it may bore you to death. Rudolf and Reinhard Heinrich’s sets are “traditional”: staircases, a stone wall, and tower for the start of Act 2; the entrance to a cathedral for the act’s close, etc. There’s very little color. Maybe this is what 10th-century Brabant looked like; if so, let’s be glad we’re not there. Wolfgang Weber’s direction is minimal and predictable—as Elsa is about to enter the church, we can feel Ortrud seething right before she hurls herself in front of the poor bride-to-be. Most of the singers can take care of themselves, so the movements are not awkward; only our Ortrud, Dunja Vejzovic, who holds the key to the opera’s drama, is pathetically underplayed. She wraps herself in her cape menacingly; it’s very “Spy vs Spy”. Video director Bryan Large does what he can, but there are just so many shots of Ortrud’s mean-looking eyes one can take.

But there are a few good reasons to see/hear this set: Placido Domingo’s Lohengrin is the most sheerly beautiful on disc. His legato is ravishing, the high notes ring, his commitment and concentration are never less than 100 percent. Others have complained about his German pronunciation; my knowledge of German is rudimentary enough not to notice or care. It’s a stunning performance.

Cheryl Studer’s Elsa is likewise lovely, but just a bit dull; she comes to life at the close of the Bridal Chamber Scene but elsewhere she’s merely a walking voice, albeit a very fine one. I can think of several better Elsas. The evil couple is so tedious that it can make your head spin: Vejzovic’s mezzo is strong, exciting at the top, and nasty, but she is so inert that she looks as if she’s about to nap. Hartmut Welker’s Telramund is more active but his voice lacks a center. Robert Lloyd’s King is imperious; George Tichy’s Herald is notable.

In addition to Domingo’s performance, Claudio Abbado’s leadership almost makes this set a must. Approaching it from an Italianate point of view, he gets a gloriously transparent reading of the score; it shimmers when it should and has the requisite energy and spectacular brass for the grander, public moments. Both picture and sound are excellent, though not HD quality; subtitles are in all major European languages. Stick with one of the the DVD performances led by Kent Nagano, on Decca or Opus Arte. Either tenor Jonas Kaufmann or Klaus Florian Vogt is worth it, and the productions are interesting as well, if not “traditional”.

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Recording Details:

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Reference Recording: Nagano (Opus Arte); Nagano (Decca)

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