Fox, Tom


LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2006 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Hans-Peter König, Klaus Florian Vogt, Solveig Kringelborn, Tom Fox, Waltraud Meier, Roman Trekel | Opus Arte

This romantic opera from the end of Wagner’s early period, just before embarking on his more mature work, is rather more conventional and accessible than, for example, the romance of Tristan und Isolde, but by the same token Lohengrin doesn’t have the conceptual weight of later Wagner dramas. The characters are rather one dimensional, divided quite clearly as being on the side of light or darkness, and the score is not as refined as later Wagner. On the other hand, there are some wonderful singing roles, some dynamic scoring that colours the difference between the physical and the spiritual, a terrific drama, and of course the opera is of great interest for the thematic links it has with the composer’s more celebrated works, to say nothing of the fact that the traditional Wedding March originates from this opera.

Lohengrin starts off like a courtroom drama, but it’s one that, being a Wagner opera, is dressed up in regal grandness, heroic declamations and with a strong element of ancient Teutonic mythology underlying it all. On the eve of going to war against Hungary, King Heinrich calls a tribunal meeting to settle a dispute that has arise over the territory of Brabant. Friedrich von Telramund has accused Elsa, the daughter of the late Duke of Brabant, of murdering Gottfried, her brother and the rightful heir to Brabant. Elsa defends her position and calls on a heroic knight of her visions to take up arms and defend herself in combat against Telramund. Her knight in shining armour (quite literally) cannot reveal his name, and begs her not to ask of it, but it transpires – no surprise here since it is the title of the opera – that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, guardian of the Holy Grail, who is himself the subject of Wagner’s final opera. The themes of this opera deal similarly – if not quite as abstractly – with questions of virtue, purity and innocence, but above all here with the noble virtues of complete love and unconditional trust.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2006 production for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, conducted by Kent Nagano, brings a new dimension to those themes. His use of the stage, as ever, is simply magnificent, the use of props minimal, the sets nonetheless majestic and impressive, yet simple and not overly ornate. The stage is immaculately lit, balancing light and shade, foreground and background, using colours to highlight and give appropriate emphasis. Whatever angle you look at this from – and the cameras do a fine job in their coverage – the stage and the positions of the characters within achieves maximum impact. At the same time, by making the period non-specific, although certainly more modern than its middle-ages origins, Lehnhoff downplays the fairytale trappings of a heroic knight borne on a chariot drawn by a wild swan (as well as leaning it well away from any troubling National Socialist conceptions that could be applied to the themes), while still remaining true to the opera and its purpose, without over-emphasising or lessening the impact of its musical strengths.

Solveig Kringelborn’s Elsa doesn’t have quite the power of the other singers, nor indeed does Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, but the nature of their characters is purer than the others, with a bond of trust between them that their counterparts Ostrund and Telramund do not possess, and consequently their voices are softer – more angelically toned than the more typical Wagnerian heldentenor in the case of Lohengrin – but clear, ringing and forceful where required. Tom Fox, as Telramund and Waltraud Meier as Ostrund are however terrific, playing their baddies to the hilt and with delightfully over-the-top almost pantomime eye-rolling madness in the case of Meier’s sorceress – both perfectly appropriate nonetheless for this particular opera and for roles that shouldn’t be underplayed. Kent Nagano conducts the Deutsches Symphonic-Orchester of Berlin for similar dramatic force, but the dynamic and subtle tones are there also, brought out in the fine PCM surround sound mix that comes on the Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray quality cannot be faulted either on its image quality, or the manner in which it is filmed. It captures perfectly the qualities of the stage sets and the lighting and allows you to get right up close with the performers. A 68-minute documentary is also included on the 2-disc set which looks at the opera and its staging in some detail with interviews from most of the principals involved, but it is overlong in its walk-through description of the plot, extensively illustrated with scenes from the opera. Kent Nagano however provides interesting analysis on the tone and complexities of the score, particularly in the preludes to each of the three acts.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.