By Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, Honorary President of the Hellenic Drama and Music Critics Union
Die Walküre ovvero Ein Plädoyer für Domingo
It was the first time we joined the Bayreuth Festival during the first cycle of its performances, usually reserved to political and social prominence and lately plagued by the inexorable heat of a phenomenally rainless German summer. We were nevertheless adamant on witnessing the Bayreuth Festival debut of Plácido Domingo as a conductor, in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, especially in the context of a rather indecent dialogue over his indomitable energy and his explorative appetite for territories not (?) directly linked to his unrivalled tenor stature.
The Festival was thankfully perceptive enough to grant this most special of artists the unique privilege of the first ever breaking of a strict Bayreuth rule. The rule which forbids the fragmentary presentation of the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle at the Festspielhaus. It is a long time now that Domingo faces the doubts of some, especially in the so called «social media», for his performances in baritone roles and as to whether he should go on at an age that many others have long retired. The artist himself has granted a simple and honest answer to that, stating in any possible way and occasion that this musical quest is to him a passionate necessity. Irrespective of any reservations on this matter, it must be admitted that fully packed opera houses, wherever Domingo appears, form a public response that indeed silences criticism.
The astonishing record of his by now 150 operatic roles in a career of over half a century1 undeniably implies his very careful choice of steps in order to retain an actual vocal status as his. But conducting has also been a parallel activity to his singing career for at least three decades. In this respect one should also take into serious consideration that Domingo is no novice to Wagner either, after at least 5 decades of sporadic, yet orderly increasing and deepening interest for Wagnerian roles. A partial private recording documents the youthful bloom and sketchy German of the then 27-year-old for his 1968 Hamburg State Opera House debut as Lohengrin. And his critically acclaimed Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg came as early as 1973 in form of a commercial recording2 , conducted by no less than Eugen Jochum. Audiences accustomed to Teutonic knights were thrilled by his tonal warmth, even if the German still remained problematic even to a non native listener. But Domingo kept on, working hard on his homework. His German had improved considerably by the time he tackled again Lohengrin for the studio, with a darker tone this time, alongside Jessye Norman and conducted by Sir Georg Solti3, while Parsifal (1992, 1993, 1995)4 and Siegmund (2000) were already on their way to the stage of the Bayreuth Festival. His Tannhäuser and Tristan followed, honey toned and insightful, both in the safety of the studio. Having witnessed his Siegmund at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, back in 2005, we are compelled to admit that in a world deprived of Konya, Vickers or Jerusalem, his interpretations of the aforementioned roles have reflected a moving lyrical empathy as well as muscular vocal fundament, a combination referring as directly as possible to the inimitable Lauritz Melchior, whose vocal longevity also owed as much as Domingo’s to their common baritonal provenance.
Having stated our case and living in a world where so called «talent shows» catapult overnight to fame and money totally ignorant people for rather spurious motivations of collective predilection, we consider any doubt related to Domingo’s conductor debut in Bayreuth as crudely unfair as the intensive booing of a vociferous minority among the Bayreuth public of the July 31st premiere. A manifestation that reminds us of another similar occasion, on March 2017, against Semyon Bychkov this time, conducting Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera, coincidentally (?) the same opera he was invited to lead at the next year’s Bayreuth Festival!
In any case, Domingo came to this challenge thoroughly prepared and of course fully aware that he would neither possibly encipher all partition’s mysteries from his first performance of it nor offer at his debut the most idiomatic seasoned Wagner conducting available. Yet his proved a solid, musical narrative, focused to a more humanized perception of love and its pain, a performance which, though discreet and intimate, provided nevertheless the excellent cast with opportunities to articulate fully and clearly the text as well as to shine vocally, to the extent of even taking some liberties with the score, such as Siegmund’s extended invocations to Wälse, so dear to tenors of the past that happened to possess the required breath stamina. His view of the work, as a primarily personal drama of conflicting feelings and duties, led him to some dangerously slow tempi, in particular during the act 1 love duet, but otherwise his pace remained natural and undemonstrative, smoothing also to some extent Frank Castorf’s debatable production, which by the way seemed to have improved considerably (especially in the more flexible and discreet use of the video) since it’s first airing, conducted then by Kirill Petrenko.
The strong vocal impact of the Wälsung incest pair, tonally luscious soprano Anja Kampe as a full voiced Sieglinde and robust tenor Stephen Gould as a vocally fearless and only very sporadically flat Siegmund, was further enhanced by the justly fabled acoustic. Kampe’s «O hehrstes Wunder» surely left its mark in the memory. The persecuted twin lovers had to face an equally defiant Hunding in young bass Tobias Kehrer, vocally and histrionically. Swedish baritone John Lundgren, also a new name to us, proved a youthful Wotan of godly stature, made much of his long act 2 monologue and communicated authority while facing a highly involved team of Valkyries in the following act. Furthermore there was a splendid give and take between him and his Goddess wife Fricka, strongly characterized and sung with uncompromised accuracy by Russian mezzo Marina Prudenskaja. As Brünnhilde, soprano Catherine Foster has gone a long way towards a deeply felt and considered characterization since her rather bland 2011 Manchester performances5. Moreover her histrionic involvement did not endanger at any stage her vocally resplendent emission, from the dangerous leaps of the initial Hojotojos, through a moving Todesverkündigung to the heart breaking farewell duet.
Having to attend Parsifal and Lohengrin in 2 consecutive evenings brought to fore an interesting reference to the Shakespearian precedent. As Lohengrin informs his listeners, he is the son of Parsifal, who apparently accepted the scepter of Monsalvat, after having soothingly deposed legitimate King Titurel’s heir, Amfortas. In this, their new capacity, the usurper sends his son (and heir?) to the world in order to establish some dubious kind of divine legitimacy and justice! Anyway, as a seasoned friend of the Festival commented during an interval,
whether you like a production in Bayreuth or not, it never fails to leave you with enough stuff for rethinking and reconsidering.
Such reconsideration in crucial details was obvious in this year’s Parsifal revival by Uwe Erik Laufenberg, much to the benefit of act 3, especially from the Good Friday Enchantment and onwards, visibly eschewing the péché originel of (nude) Adam and Eve with a cathartic rain and stressing the universal appeal of a fraternal embrace among people of any race and faith.
Under the barely overstated yet transcendentally involving direction of Semyon Bychkov, Wagner’s swansong was served by some exceptional interpretations. Thanks to the supportive acoustic, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck offered a vocally resplendent, authoritative and deeply felt performance of Gurnemanz, with exemplary diction of his long text. If anyone still considers this character as a bore, he should listen to his performance! Elena Pankratova achieved an equally elevated sphere of singing and acting excellence, surpassing even her high class Kundry of last year, thanks to searching support from Bychkov’s baton and a phenomenal vocal comfort in any region of her tantalizingly secure Zwischenfach between mezzo and dramatic soprano. Her Parsifal was Austrian tenor Andreas Schager, whose youthful and steely emission, while sensitive to dynamic shadings, was somewhat mitigated by deficient vocal colouring, especially in the more compassionate segments of his role. Clear text enunciation was not the highpoint of German baritone Thomas J. Mayer’s Amfortas, who nevertheless presented an amply sung and Christ – like tormented sinner King, believable in his palpable, blood spending suffering of an originally enacted Eucharistic ritual. With German bass Tobias Kehrer as Titurel of an almost unfittingly healthy vocal status, Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton as a believably masochistic, doubting Klingsor and a painstakingly schooled supporting cast of admirable Flower Maidens (their scene revealed touching musical sense), as well as very promising Esquires and Knights, the evening came to a spiritually uplifting conclusion. Semyon Bychkov in particular scored a well deserved triumph reflected in the standing ovation of the audience, including the seasoned Wagnerians!
Lohengrin in a new production
With Lohengrin (2 August), our 3rd consecutive evening at the Green Hill, we sampled the only new production of this year’s Festival, succeeding to the Hans Neuenfels much debated one, emblematized by the rat costumed nobles of Brabant. After the withdrawal of Latvian star director Alvis Hermanis, this new production was passed on to his American colleague Yuval Sharon, who was called to evolve his own vision of the plot drawing from the evocative scenery of painter couple Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy. The two opted for a palette of grey blue as the colour depicting the work’s otherworldly atmosphere, alternating between fairy tale and nightmare and contrasting strongly to the bright orange linked with Lohengrin, as the intruder to a sober kingdom, a benefactor who seeks to enlighten with the Promethean gift of electricity (light). Orange reigns supreme also at the bridal scene of act 3, but the hero’s departure brings again darkness and uncertainty to the medieval realm. Reference of the production team to Lenin (!) and his visionary effort to bring electricity to the then recently established USSR seems both irrelevant and curious, leaving one to wonder why this vogue in Bayreuth to beautify a globally receding political dogma and its indisputably autocratic regimes (as Castorf Ring also did).
The production provided a valuable aesthetic point of view though, thankfully without detracting from the divine music of Wagner, blessed as it was by Christian Thielemann’s alternately ethereal and bold reading, taut and admirably culminating to the climax of each act. Lohengrin marked this devoted Wagnerian’s round-up of the Bayreuth canon, ongoing at the Festspielhaus for 18 years. It was at his initiative that veteran Waltraud Meier was called back to the Green Hill, in order to bid her moving farewell to the murderous role of Ortrud6, an assignment that she brought off with remarkable care and insight, as one of course expects from such an experienced and visionary artist. Her Ortrud raised somewhat more cautiously but still defiantly to moments as vocally demanding as «Entweihte Götter», yet it was the sly side of the character that subtly enriched her already impressive portrayal. Acting as a prompter to her husband’s schemes, she provided a welcome contrast to his physical brutality. Unfortunately Friedrich, at least as interpreted by Polish-born Austrian bass-baritone Tomas Konieczny, was loathsome for the wrong reasons, that is for his constantly snarling vocalism, akin rather to Alberich than to a nobleman, as Count of Telramund indisputably is, albeit a villain one. German bass Georg Zeppenfeld established lean and euphonious authority to king Heinrich I (nicknamed «der Vogler», 919-936 a.D.). He compensated for a limited volume with quality of utterance and he was introduced by a smart and vocally reliable Herald in the person of his Latvian colleague Egils Siliņš.
The focus of interest though remained with the main couple, since the tenor foreseen and already announced for the title role had been no less than Roberto Alagna, a very interesting piece of casting, considering that this would mark his first major assignment in a Wagner opera, at an advanced stage of his career, after the leap to the dramatic – heroic domain of (Verdi’s) Otello and (Saint-Saens’s) Samson et Dalila. It was a choice that had taken us by surprise, at least after the triumphant series of Lohengrin performances at the Semperoper Dresden under Thielemann’s baton, featuring Piotr Beczala as the eponymous knight and Anna Netrebko as Elsa7. Thielemann’s choice seems to have embittered the famous Polish tenor, but thankfully and magnanimously he proved eager to join the Bayreuth production at the conductor’s proposal, as an exceptional replacement for Alagna, whose late withdrawal from the venture was commented unfavorably in otherwise carefully formulated interviews aired by the Bavarian BR Klassik radio station.
Beczala proved a well nigh ideal piece of casting for this role, destined to remain for several years to come as his (yet) only assumption of a Wagnerian tenor part. Having gained from stage experience, he was a believably handsome and thrillingly sung Lohengrin, with enviable smoothness and sweetness of tone, elevated sense of vocal shading and colouring and with an incredible appropriation of the sung text mirrored in hiscrystal clear diction. With Netrebko having already reconsidered her vaguely negative initial response to a Bayreuth invitation (4 performances featuring the Diva are promised for 2019 on the Green Hill), it was Anja Harteros who acted as Elsa for the 2018 summer. Not anymore so fresh from her magnificent 2009 performances of that opera in Munich at the side of the unique Jonas Kaufmann8, this most distinguished and professional of the contemporary handful of primadonnas eschewed easily memories of her recent predecessors in Bayreuth, yet she had to face stiff competition from her own aforementioned achievement. Her tone seemed to lack a certain ecstatic quality during her first act invocation and seemed temporarily suffused in her confrontation with Ortrud in act 2. Nevertheless she regained her resplendent form for a memorable bridal scene in act 3. In any case our remarks are meek criticism to an artist who flirts too often with perfection to be judged by any other than her own phenomenally high standards!
The last “Dutchman” – Reassessing a supposedly lost case
It proved a wise decision to give one more chance to Jan Philipp Gloger’s «Der fliegende Holländer», ably conducted by Axel Kober, that had rather disappointed us on former occasions. The mismatch of yet another anti-capitalist notion with the work’s romantic character had been aggravated by unfortunate casting for the eponymous phantom captain. For this last airing in Bayreuth, the production not only has improved in the care bestowed to its visual part, but has also acquired a more credible life by a (nearly) uniformly outstanding cast. The tall, well built figure lent to the Dutchman by John Lundgren was coupled with his big, dark voice and his urgent acting. Although he has still some way to go towards text enunciation and refinement of his singing, his was a believably tormented impersonation of the damned sailor, hardened by centuries of maritime and soul wanderings. He proved also a vocally and histrionically credible fantasyfor obsessed Senta, passionately acted and sung in full yet tonally suspect tone by Chemnitz-born soprano Ricarda Merbeth, an instance of course more annoying to some ears than others. Lundgren provided also the necessary character contrast between the Dutchman and his supposed rival, Erik, here presented not as huntsman but as a down to earth house carpenter. This central character was magnificently served by Croatian tenor Tomislav Mužek, who received enthusiastic curtain calls. Another singing and acting asset of this production’s revival was the Steuermann of tenor Rainer Trost, a high class singing actor for this seemingly minor yet pivotal role. Last but not least and worthy of a special accolade was British bass Peter Rose who provided an outstandingly characterful Daland, a worthy successor to Mayor Van Bett (in Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann), Bacculus (Der Waffenschmied), Falstaff (in Otto Nicolai’s opera) and others from the endangered tradition of once popular German heitere Oper, with which Wagner was well acquainted…
1. His most recent assumption followed his Bayreuth conductor debut at this year’s Salzburg Festival. On August 23 he impersonated fisherman Zurga in a concert performance of Georges Bizet’s «Les Pêcheurs de Perles» opposite Aida Garifulina as Leila and Javier Camarena as Nadir.
2. First published on a 5-lp set by Deutsche Grammophon
3. Issued initially on both lp and cd by Decca
4. Wagneropera.net under http://www.wagneropera.net/biographies/placido-domingo.htm
5. Featuring the Hallé Orchestra under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. The recording was issued on the Orchestra’s own label (CDHLD7531).
6. An illuminating 2017 documentary by Annette Schreier under the title «Wagner-Legende Waltraud Meier – Adieu Kundry, Adieu Isolde» fitfully chronicles her farewell to these great roles as well as her future plans.
7. Available on Dvd by Deutsche Grammophon
8. Issued by Decca