Fresh from performing and recording Lohengrin, the Russian conductor explains how Wagner's music transcends what might otherwise appear to be overblown myth
Your recording of Lohengrin is the culmination of quite a long process with your cast. Can you tell us about this?
I was originally asked to do the new production at the Vienna State Opera for December 2005. I’d already conducted other Wagner operas, but this would have been my first Lohengrin. So I planned the first concert performances in Spain, involving Johan Botha as Lohengrin and Petra Lang as the villainess, Ortrud; so we started creating our own little team and family in that piece, and the whole idea from the start was that following the Vienna production we’d do the concerts and recording in Cologne. Falk Struckmann as Telramund and Kwangchul Youn as King Henry joined us in Vienna, and they were all in the Cologne project concerts and the recording [made in 2008]. At the same time I planned the London appearance [at the Royal Opera House performances in April and May this year].
Everything in Lohengrin – the characters, the story – seems larger than life or even over-the-top, such as the first appearance of Lohengrin himself riding on a boat drawn by a swan. Is there a danger of such fanciful imagery ‘getting in the way’ for modern audiences?
Well it’s presenting a legend. The use of legend to present big themes has always existed throughout history. We need myths, because a myth takes you into an imaginary road of fantasy – it’s sort of a larger-scale fairy tale, often scary.
But don’t fairy tales tend to avoid shades of grey and instead present extremes of black and white, good versus evil?
Not really, because this is where Wagner’s music brings other shades into it. If you just read the text and follow the actions of, for example, Ortrud, one of the most vivid characters in Lohengrin, it’s all too obvious just what a horrible creature this woman is. And then suddenly you hear her music, and you ask yourself why doesn’t the music show at all how I think of her. That is the power of Wagner’s music, giving depth to her character where the text may only suggest a single dimension.
So we’re not just looking at evil villains…
Absolutely not. Though Wagner himself said that this is a woman who’s only interested in politics and knows no love, the actual music he gives her is full of beauty, of longing, melancholy and real anguish and pain – even a certain amount of nobility. I only understood what Wagner was doing when we were rehearsing the opera in Spain: we were rehearsing the confrontation between Elsa and Ortrud in Act II, and we were talking with all the artists who were there – Johan Botha (pictured here in rehearsal with Bychkov; Botha is on the right, Bychkov the left) and Petra Lang – about Ortrud’s character. And I suddenly realised that we tend to think of Ortrud based on what she does and the way she behaves, as we all do with everyone. But on the other hand, there’s how she thinks of herself, the way she perceives herself, which is not necessarily the same thing.
Why do you think Wagner made Ortrud sympathetic in that way?
Wagner identified with every character that he created, whether it was Brünhilde, Wotan, Parsifal or whoever. I believe there is something of Wagner in Ortrud: he too was hated, and himself hated; he too was betrayed, and himself betrayed. That is why Ortrud, and indeed all his most vile characters, are much more layered than their texts suggest. And then you realise that nothing is really so simple, and nothing is simply as it appears.
So how much sympathy are we meant to feel for Ortrud at the end of this drama?
Well, I do feel compassion for her, because she suffers and she’s a victim of her own madness. But everybody has to decide for themselves. You know, we are having a very rational conversation – as anybody who is talking about this opera would, since as soon as you express your thoughts in words reason is going to be present. But before there’s any discussion, you have an emotional response to what you hear and see; afterwards one tries to understand what it is one has experienced, and why, so the rational aspect takes over. But that is the secondary step; the first step is the emotional reaction to something. If we didn't have this emotional reaction we wouldn’t have been interested in the opera in the first place.
Interview by Daniel Jaffé
Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Lohengrin is reviewed in full in the July issue, published 11 June
CD: Wagner: Lohengrin
Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Petra Lang, Kwangchul Youn, Falk Struckmann, Eike Wilm Schulte; WDR Radio Choir, Cologne; NDR Choir; Prague Chamber Choir; WDR SO, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Profil Hänssler PH 09004 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Audio clip: Wagner: Lohengrin – Act 3: Prelude
Image: WDR/Thomas Kost