Lohengrin - CBSO / Andris Nelsons - Symphony Hall Birmingham, 12 June 2010
Competing in the World Cup is tough enough; competing with it is even harder. But the CBSO managed to fill Symphony Hall for a one-off concert performance of Lohengrin despite the first round challenge from England v.USA. Scheduling a 90 minute interval to coincide with kick off was one of the evening's most skilful moves. Opera and football touch the same part of the soul; together they make an irresistible team.
Andris Nelsons scored an early winner for Birmingham with a prelude of exquisitely tensile beauty. Unlike Rob Green he let nothing slip from his grasp all evening. Semyon Bychkov's brisk, Italianate Lohengrin at Covent Garden last year cast an eye back at the work's influences. Nelsons instead looked forward to the merged space-time of Parsifal. Lohengrin is one of the least action-packed three and a half hours ever, and Nelsons didn't try to impose any notion of dramatic momentum. His contemplative tempos explored the music rather than driving it, yet paradoxically it was perhaps the most enthralling, dramatically absorbing rendition I've ever heard.
The CBSO, perfectly balanced, didn't put a foot wrong all night, and Nelsons was able to wring some captivating off-stage effects with the aid of Symphony Hall's multi-level stage exits. The enormous CBSO Chorus, bolstered by the men of the London Symphony Chorus, could have been more accurately coordinated in places, but they made a magnificent sound. The Youth Chorus, brought in just for the second act, were faultless, their young voices rising in a crystalline purity that no opera house chorus could hope to emulate. Nelsons didn't hesitate to exploit Symphony Hall's ~Mighty Organ~ for that crucial Act 2 climax either, another luxury that opera houses could only dream of. The difference those few notes made was staggering - it was like hearing the music for the first time.
And what of the soloists? No big star names, and some slightly unexpected ones, but they made a fine team. Hillevi Martinpelto, a late substitute for Edith Haller, was a wonderfully girlish, innocent Elsa, soaring with ease through every line.
One note from Lance Ryan and it's easy to tell why his penetrating, steely tenor is in such demand as Siegfried. Alas it doesn't really have the beauty or mystery a great Lohengrin requires, but he hit the notes diligently, and managed to keep enough in reserve to bring In fernem land to a truly momentous conclusion.
The compact, silver-haired Eike Wilm Schulte was a deceptively wily, vigorous Telramund, a sometimes comic foil to Lioba Braun's scenery-chewing Ortrud and her wardrobe of witchy frocks, a fresh one for each act. Perfectly matched, their second act exchanges had a vitality you rarely see even in staged performances.
Gidon Saks was an interesting choice for King Heinrich. Usually associated with bad-guy parts, he lent a truly menacing flavour to the King's nationalist rants. And Kostas Smoriginas, who I don't think has ever sung Wagner before, was an authoritative Herald, all the more impressive for singing his lines - beautifully - from behind the orchestra without either bellowing or disappearing altogether.
Some of the papers dubbed this performance a rehearsal run for Andris Nelsons' Bayreuth debut next month. But it was so much more than that. Carefully planned, meticulously rehearsed and brilliantly executed, it was simply a great performance in its own right.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the other great Lohengrin I've seen in recent years was also a concert performance.