Surprisingly perhaps I started out liking this 1986 recording of Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera quite a lot. It’s a very traditional, literal and 70s/80s dark production but the orchestra and chorus are great, the P-regie seems pretty well thought out and the singing in the opening scenes is great. Unfortunately it really rather goes downhill once Elsa, Lohengrin and Ortrud make their appearances.
James Levine conducts and gets plenty of gorgeous playing and some really exciting sounds out of the orchestra right from the start. The effort is a bit undermined by the Dolby stereo sound which is quite thin and rather takes the bloom off the orchestral sound (not to mention an epic coughing fit in the audience) but once one gets used to that it’s rather good. The early scenes too are very well sung. John Macurdy gives a heroic King Henry. There are no complications here. He’s a good king; war leader of his people and fountain of justice. Anthony Ruffell is an equally straightforward and solidly sung Herald and if Leif Roar as Telramund snarls his topnotes a bit it’s at ne with the character. All this is quite well served by August Everding’s not very specifically mediaeval production. It’s more SCA than 10th century Brabant but, dim lighting aside, it’s serviceable and the direction of the chorus is very effective. Kudos too to Everding. Despite it being 1986 and the Met there isn’t actually a swan.
Unfortunately the standard isn’t really sustained. Eva Marton’s Elsa is thin toned (not helped by the recording), quite wobbly and rather dull. Peter Hofmann’s Lohengrin is just dull. There is no charisma and by In fernem Land he’s sounding very dry with little bloom in the voice and the big dénouement falls rather flat. Leonie Rysanek just sounds out of her depth. She’s convincingly evil and her physical acting and expressions are fine but the voice is too small and she sounds more shrill than sinister. So, there are thrilling moments, notably the conclusion of Act1, but the music making doesn’t have the grandeur that a traditional Lohengrin needs.
Video director Brian Large seems to lose patience too. While he’s pretty restrained in Act 1 in the later acts he starts to pull out the video box of tricks. There’s some really weird editing for example during Elsa and Ortrud’s long Act 2 duet. Although on stage they are some way apart on screen they are right next to each other with Ortrud, in ghastly blue light that makes her look like a corpse, right next to and 30% larger than brightly lit Elsa. It’s very peculiar. One does have some sympathy with large though. He tries to show Everdings big choral set pieces but the 4:3 TV standard picture really isn’t up to it.
The only sound option is Dolby stereo and it’s thin and weedy. The only subtitle option is English and that’s a bit hit and miss. For example there are no subtitles at all during Treulich Geführt. There are no extras and documentation is ultra-basic. It should be noted that I was watching the North American release on Pioneer. It has been rereleased on DG with PCM stereo and DTS (presumably digitally synthesized) sound and more subtitle options. I would expect the sound on the new release to be an improvement.
I find it hard to believe there’s not a better traditional Lohengrin out there.