Sunday 22 April 2012

J. S. MARCUS reviews: Deutsche Oper's Lohengrin

BERLIN—On any given night during the Cold War, West Berlin's Deutsche Oper could lay claim to being Germany's best opera company. It still boasts Berlin's largest opera house—a mammoth functionalist wonder, opened within weeks of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961—but it has lost ground in the past decade to its two competitors in the former East, the Komische Oper and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

Now, the Deutsche Oper is heading toward a new high note, with Sunday's première of Wagner's "Lohengrin" serving as proof that the company's constituent parts can blend into an impressive whole.

A main reason for the resurgence is the in-house chorus, led by American conductor William Spaulding: for three of the past four years, it has been selected as German-speaking Europe's best by Opernwelt magazine. Another is Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, who arrived as music director in 2009. All are in top form for "Lohengrin," whose orchestral prelude and choral passages are the musical crux of any performance.

The staging itself is a bit too traditional for the thoroughly radicalized German audience, who demand novelty as well as musical perfection. Created by A-lister Kasper Holten, the Dane known for his Copenhagen Ring cycle and now director of opera of London's Royal Opera House, this "Lohengrin," which is set in the Middle Ages, actually has principals dressed in medieval-looking costumes. An effective anachronistic touch comes with the chorus, who are dressed as soldiers from wars at any time in the past millennium.

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