ALBUM TITLE: Wagner
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo, Cheryl Studer, Robert Lloyd, Dunja Vejzovic, Hartmut Welker, Georg Tichy; Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Claudio Abbado; dir. Wolfgang Weber (Vienna, 1990)
CATALOGUE NO: 100 956
That this would be a classier musical event than many recently served up on DVD seemed assured by conductor and cast; but an austere Vienna production also comes to play its part in the total operatic experience. Starting unpromisingly with static historical pageant under loury grey skies and lighting that makes sunken pools of the principals’ eyes, director Wolfgang Weber reminds us that Lohengrin’s clash of the Christianity that dare not speak its name with vengeful paganism takes place at the end of the Dark Ages. Apart from a motionless, tinselly swan fit for mad Ludwig’s kitschfest and a pasteboard palace wall in Act II, nothing distracts from a grim unity coloured by significant splashes of burgundy or royal blue (the gauze that falls between the newlyweds and the Romanesque backdrop in Act III is the only concession to romance).
Charismatic principals fill the threatening void. Plácido Domingo’s knight, triumphing over mullet hairstyle, looks chivalry incarnate, though he sounds best as an ardent lover and inevitably has to marshal all his resources for his cruelly late-in-the-day grail monologue. Cheryl Studer’s swooning, quivering Elsa, vocally ideal in 1990 though with hints of the troubles to come, ideally complements the iconic Ortrud of steely Dunja Vejzovic (giving a blood-freezing look as the women enter the palace and the music soars in queasy overconfidence). As a rapturous Viennese audience acknowledges, though, it’s Abbado’s evening; a potentially four-square score sounds alternately incandescent, inky black, aggressively militaristic and, in the short-lived love duet, positively late Verdian in its supple freedom. Reliable camerawork closes in on the sweat and stress of live Wagner, powerful to experience in one concentrated sitting. David Nice