Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Volpe's last triumph

I was living elsewhere on the east coast in 1998, so when a friend told me that Karita Mattila had really made something of Elsa in the fall's Robert Wilson Lohengrin revival, I still passed. I'd been at the production's infamous premiere that March, and though I didn't hate it enough to boo with the rest of the crowd, enough of it struck me as agonizingly silly to make quick reprise doubtful. Mattila, too -- though she had turned the corner years before -- I associated with her prior incarnation, that well-schooled but unexciting soprano who'd graced the stage for the dozen years after Cardiff.

So I can't say what happened seven years ago. But last night's likely even more remarkable: Mattila and company have made that notable flop of the Volpe era into its last great success.

How much of the original remains, I don't know. (No new assistant directors or the like are listed in the program.) As I recall, Wilson intended the poses and wavy hand movements to be not merely anti-naturalistic but actually alienating. This plus the austere, static, and almost color-free set design were deadly in the hands of the premiere's mostly stand-and-sing cast, for whom in-mood sets and gestures are necessary to buttress sonic illusion.

For this cast, though -- most of all Mattila and debuting soprano Luana DeVol -- the distancing and tortuous poses are (as here revived) near-ideal frames. They isolate and resist, but do not (again, as here revived) bar nuances of physical response. In fact the resistance encourages them, dares each performer to continuously push back -- vocally and fine-gesturally -- against this formal tether. The result is the densest performance I can recall; so much happens in such a small space, at an emotional pitch heightened by the called-for control. Just to see Mattila's arms in Act 2 is more than the entirety of Schenk's Don Pasquale (or, indeed, most of his Ring...); the whole is more even than her work in other stagings where her engagement floats free, or comes linked just to climaxes. And such dense concentration caught up the whole cast (chorus included), who if not so minutely engaged were yet present with remarkable collective focus.

And so, the glacial non-movement of Wilson's physical production seemed more sensible. Even the end, criticized at the time for showing neither Ortrud nor Elsa expiring, made some sense as we saw that live stage presence of Mattila's, amplified all evening in her physical labors, simply ebb away on hearing Lohengrin's account.

This was DeVol's Met debut, despite a long career (including Bayreuth) in the big Wagner parts. Her voice, despite any technical litany (to start: is it one voice, or fragments?), has to my ears all these fascinating and (at low-mid volume) beguiling textures in it. She makes much of them, and is an interesting complement to the clear-toned but similarly volatile Mattila; I'd much like to hear them paired elsewhere. Still I'm sure she'll be controversial, particularly to those listening for a certain sort of aural beauty.

But the evening was about something quite different, and any beauty-based review is, I think, serious misrepresentation. Even Levine fill-in Philippe Auguin's somewhat dry sound mattered less than his responsiveness, and the countless gradations of feeling he caught in characteristically objective style.

For those with senses to hear and see such things: go. (Before the cast implodes from stress.) The radio, I'm afraid, will be more misrepresentation. A telecast/DVD would be fantastic -- if last night's fairly traditional bunch can be roused, anyone can -- but I'm afraid the Met lacks money and DG lacks sense (they're still sitting on the "full Mattila" Salome).

UPDATE (2:30PM): The event draws bloggers forth in praise: Steve Smith, Jonathan at Wellsung (and more), Maury, and even the long-absent Sieglinde.


  1. Gabriel Bocanegra, your anti-semetic trolling and spamming is not welcome here. Get lost.

  2. Explanation of previous comment: an infamous internet troll, admirer of a soprano better left un-embarrassed, has been dropping comments on all the opera blogs who discussed this production. I deleted the one here -- of which blogger has left no other trace.

  3. This is "anon." only because it's late & I don't want to go through the hassle of registering with Blogger. But ...
    I was at the 5/6 performance and it was a privileged experience. It reminded me of something John Ardoin wrote about the Chereau "Ring": that he'd become disenchanted with the operatic art, but then realized he was right to demand more because more was indeed possible. So it was with this "Lohengrin" and I think your critique really nails what was special, memorable and deeply moving about it.
    I've seen and heard many "Lohengrin" performances, yet it was as though I were experiencing the piece for the first time. Perhaps Wilson's staging is meant to be alienating and intellectual, but I found it naive in the best sort of way: a cross between a medieval tapestry and a fairy tale. For three-plus hours, we were transported into another realm, in which people did not look or move as we are accustomed to seeing them, and in which the prodigious time scale and majestic pace of Wagner's musical were the perfect evocation of this other world.
    Your point about the tension between the restraint imposed by the movement and the natural expressiveness of the singers (well, the women, anyway) is well-taken. Likewise, the way in which the majesty of the processionals, both onstage and in the orchestra, prolongs the moment of harmonic resolution until it would be unbearable to delay it one moment longer. Besides, naturalism and Wagner can be an odd mix, so after not knowing what the Sam Hill to expect, the stylization suited me just fine.
    As seen with the ethereal Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin, I was reminded of descriptions of the dramatic balance of Wieland Wagner's 1958 staging: a young, athletic King attempting to arbitrate the dispute between two powerful, high-strung women, with Lohengrin a near-helpless onlooker. It was a Mattila/DeVol evening, and your descriptions of their voices strike me as spot-on: Neither of them sounds like anyone else singing today and both perform as though their lives hung in the balance, which is the kind of high-stakes commitment sadly lacking from much of today's opera. That said, I think the current "Lohengrin" demonstrates that the "good old days" are still very much with us, when the planets align themselves correctly, and the emotional wallop delivered by that closing-night "Lohengrin" remains undiminished to this day. So thank you for saying so much that needed saying.
    A few other, musical observations: It was a capital idea to triple the quota of Pages for Act 2; the prescribed foursome may have worked in the smaller opera houses of Wagner's era, but we need a more bolstered sound today. Also, the larger contingent effectively masks any vagaries of pitch. The chorus, asked to do little more than stand and deliver, did so magnificently.
    Richard Paul Fink seemed manifestly uncomfortable with the *regie* (or with an Amazonian consort). He sang well, if you like the Telramund-as-street-thug school of interpretation. (I don't.) We're blessed to have René Pape as Heinrich, unrolling a seemingly endless carpet of effort-free, magnificent tone, and it's lagniappe to have Eike Wilm Schulte as the Herald, so splendid in his proclamations. He has a great face, too, so kudos to Wilson for having him onstage in Act III, Scene 2, even though the Herald has nothing to sing. Schulte makes standing still meaningful.
    If anything, that's the mantra of this production: Don't do something; just stand there. And it works. At least it did for me. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who made this tremendously stirring revival possible.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.