Wagner - Lohengrin

ONP Bastille, Tuesday June 5, 2007

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Production: Robert Carsen. Sets and costumes: Paul Steinberg. Heinrich der Vogler: Jan-Hendrik Rootering. Lohengrin: Ben Heppner. Elsa von Brabant: Mireille Delunsch. Friedrich von Telramund: Jean-Philippe Lafont. Ortrud: Waltraud Meier. Der Heerrufer des Königs: Evgeny Nikitin. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

From what I read on the web, this run of Lohengrin has gone steadily gone downhill since the mostly positive reviews it got in its early days in the press ("Waltraud Meier is Ortrud, Ben Heppner is Lohengrin...").

It was soon troubled by Valery Gergiev's erratic punctuality, owing to his hectic performance schedule. One Saturday, it started 30 minutes late. The following week, management announced he was in his taxi; then, that he was still on his plane and that the first act would be conducted by someone else; then, after act one, that he had arrived but was "not in a fit state" to conduct. For subsequent performances, he was off sick, but on Tuesday night he was back - fifteen minutes and several outbursts of rhythmic clapping late. It was said, on the web, that he had only arrived at the theatre, from the airport, at ten past seven...

If I were a singer of the status of Meier and Heppner, I'd be pretty peeved about Gergiev's timekeeping (everyone ready to start on time except him), so maybe these shenanigans have annoyed and demotivated the cast. Maybe it's the rough rides Mireille Delunsch has been given as Elsa, unable to come out alone for a bow. Maybe, as the end of the run appoaches, everyone is tired. Maybe it's a combination of all of these...

Whatever the case, Tuesday was really an off night, except for the orchestra, even though, during that rhythmic clapping, some of them kept time with their bows or drumsticks. They still responded magnificently from the word go with an impressively massed "Kirov" sound. But Heppner had a shaky start, intonation-wise, was often covered even by acompanying wind chords, and then, in act 2, cracked his top notes twice: in fact, typical off-peak Heppner. Meier, though certainly the most "traditionally" Wagnerian sound of the evening, was not at her best, forced to force her voice and sounding tired at the top.

Lafont was at his blustery, cavernous worst, making heavy weather of it and demonstrating that Wagner at the Bastille is tougher going than Saint-Saëns in a concert hall. Even Nikitin, roundly praised in the early reviews, seemed only to be singing loud, with dodgy intonation.

Delunsch wasn't as bad as I expected, in the circumstances. You could argue that, as the production had her play the part as a waif in rags, the voice was consistent with that. But stylistically it seemed out of place, and I really don't like her frequent little scoops up into the notes, which really do remind me of Pop Idol hopefuls trying to sing with style. Rootering was often barely audible.

The production is now 13 years old. Whether it's aged badly, or whether everyone was just tired and fed up and uncommitted, it seemed to me to be of little interest, certainly not one of Carsen's most convincing efforts. In any case, as with La Juive, I had the impression almost any opera could have been done in that set, our old "friend" the post-catastrophe, concrete bunker (how much money have opera houses spent, I wonder, in the last 30 years, building "concrete" bunkers to different designs for operas ranging from Händel to Bizet and Strauss?) and in those drab, post-war refugee costumes.

And then, what were we supposed to think when, in that grim, 40s context, Lohengrin appeared through an opening at the rear, from a Romantic-era forest complete with stuffed swan, in full Round Table chain mail, breastplate and cloak? I'm told I am too harsh and that this was a good way of presenting the contrast between the two worlds...

The coughing was dreadful, and having stayed for the second act for the sake of Meier, who we thought might save the show, we left before the third.

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