wed 22/05/2024

theartsdesk in Strasbourg: crossing the frontiers | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Strasbourg: crossing the frontiers

theartsdesk in Strasbourg: crossing the frontiers

'Lohengrin' marks a remarkable singer's arrival on Planet Wagner

Pilgrim from a distant land: Michael SpyresAll images (except where specified) by Klara Beck

A single pair of swans glided serenely under the bridges of the river Ill as I walked to the premiere of the Opéra National du Rhin’s new production of Lohengrin in Strasbourg on Sunday.

It felt like an auspicious omen for Michael Spyres’s first full performance of a major Wagnerian role. Spyres’s initiation comes after the Missouri-born singer’s acclaimed flights across huge tracts of the Baroque, classical and Romantic repertoire – a journey taken on the mighty but sensitive wings of his category-busting, three-octave-wide “baritenor” voice.

The packed house in the 1820s theatre (many of them German visitors from over the nearby Rhine) would not be disappointed. As the mysterious swan-knight Lohengrin, in this last music-drama that Wagner designated as a formal “opera”, Spyres uncoiled – stage by stage, gear by gear – the blend of beauty and majesty, sweetness and strength, that has made the American star such a sizzling global property on stage and in studio alike. (Pictured below, the River Ill by Boyd Tonkin)“Wagner was a bel cantist,” Spyres had insisted prior to the performance. For sure, the honeyed French-Italian legato line and fluent lyric grace that marks his recordings flowed, swan-like, through this interpretation. But his massive, and massively versatile, instrument never lacks heft and punch when the dramatic context demands it. Lohengrin’s great third-act narration, “In fernem Land”, achieved a mesmeric, resonant authority to match any of Spyres’s more “heroic” forebears in this role. And where better than Strasbourg, where ancient Franco-German tensions and entanglements settled after 1945 into a new civic identity as key hub for a converging Europe, to host a singer who has scaled the Wagner mountain by way of its lesser-known French – and, to a degree, Italian – slopes?

“Wagner wrote (Lohengrin) for someone with a bel canto background,” Spyres explained to me a couple of days before the opening. “If you look at the history books, I’m doing what the original Wagnerians were doing.” His full-length debut as the sanctified knight follows a concert performance of the second act of Tristan und Isolde, and the three Wagner arias (one from Lohengrin) that cap his collection of bel canto and Grand Opera pieces on In the Shadows: Spyres’s newly-released Erato album with Christophe Rousset and his period ensemble Les Talens Lyriques. Spyres’s Wagnerian journey will continue with a Bayreuth debut this summer (Siegmund in Die Wälkure) and Die Meistersinger in 2025.

It took the “baritenor”, who trained in Vienna after his early American education, plenty of time to feel that such fabled peaks lay within his vocal reach. A professor had told him that “You’ll eventually go towards Wagner in your forties”. So he has, but without any premature ascents, since “It takes 15-20 years to understand what your voice can do”. And what it can’t do. Now, however, he’s on for the full Wagnerian banquet. “I want to go through his entire oeuvre. All in decent time.”Spyres’s circuitous journey towards Wagner should help to light a path for sceptics and fainthearts. On In the Shadows, Rousset’s historically-informed instrumental hues with Les Talens Lyriques securely bed pre-Wagner arias by Rossini, Bellini, Auber, Spontini and others into an early-Romantic sound-world. Here, Spyres’s mellifluously acrobatic deep tenor (or high baritone) feels gorgeously at home, and at ease. Then come the trio of Wagner jewels: arias from the early operas Die Feen and Rienzi, along with Lohengrin’s “Mein lieber Schwan!”. Our carefully prepared ears welcome the revolutionary German back into the sweeter, smoother, but intensely expressive, musical landscape of his youth.

It would be crude, but not entirely false, to suggest that on this album Spyres and Rousset make an enchanting case for Wagner to people who’d normally rather listen to Bellini or Donizetti. Singer and players enfold the German pioneer not only into bel canto plushness and liquidity, but the softer splendour of French Grand Opera as practised by figures such as Meyerbeer, Méhul and Spontini. Spyres salutes “the beauty and complexity of the operatic repertoire” in all its corners, famous or forgotten, and his album digs out several overlooked gems. 

The sound of Planet Wagner, meanwhile, edges closer to its neighbours' atmosphere. With Wagner on period instruments, Rousset explained to me in Strasbourg, "The colour is very woody. The mixing with the voice is somehow more natural. There is less metal.” Rousset loves the “freshness” that results and won’t much care if hard-core old-school Wagnerians do not. Some muscians have admitted to him that, performed this way, “It’s the first time I feel emotion with Wagner”. In any case, in these nimble hands the composer certainly doesn’t look or sound any more like (in Rousset’s words) “a big truck coming along the tunnel”.

With such revisionist ideas in the air, and in a city that embodies a modern age of Franco-German amity, it came as a bit of surprise to find Lohengrin itself staged – Spyres’s fabulously ecumenical voice aside – in a fairly traditional way. Elaborate programme notes from director Florent Siaud position the medieval tale of the anonymous holy knight (pictured above), who helps save embattled Brabant but flees back to the Grail castle when forced to reveal his name, within a rich field of thought about ideal communities, national destiny, and shared mythology. 

True, odd touches do illustrate Siaud’s awareness of the dystopian downside of communal ideology: he cites, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. We glimpse book-burnings, hanged bodies, creepy mass wedding ceremonies (pictured below, Martina Serafin as Ortrud with Johanni van Oostrum as Elsa). Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz's costumes evoke the 19th- and 20th-century power-struggles that saw Strasbourg itself wrenched between rival nationalisms, while the decor of smashed arches and mutilated statues suggests the ruined glory that was Greece. But in general a stately pace, some impressive but sluggish set-pieces, plus Romain Fabre’s pleasingly pictorial sets (with the moods of German Romantic painting very much to the fore), mean that this Lohengrin unfolds according to the solid grandeur of the operatic past. Siaud’s preoccupation with political ideas of identity and exclusion, and the separation of insiders from outsiders in “imagined communities”, certainly fits a frontier town like Strasbourg and a long-disputed region such as Alsace. It simply doesn’t impinge too much on our experience of his Lohengrin on stage.So much the better, many opera buffs might think. Those pretty moonlit pictures and rush-free processions left ample time and space for the music, and the voices, to shine. And shine they mostly did. Spyres himself displayed an astonishing range, and almost equal confidence across its whole extent – even if the middle voice now has an extra layer of lustre. Opulent yet elegant, his long lines unspooled with a radiant assurance to match his persona not as a flashy knight in shining armour but a self-denying warrior-monk. Thankfully, the mystic swan itself, whose malfunctions fuel so much opera-house folklore, here became more of a presiding idea of redemption than a fairground chariot – and, in the prologue, took the form of the constellation that young Elsa watches in the skies; pictured below.

As Elsa, whose seesawing doubts about her nameless hero-husband twist and prolong the plot, South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum showed more dignity than passion, the voice gaining in finesse what it occasionally lacked in outright power. Still, standout scenes such as her balcony aria (“Euch, Lüften, die mein Klagen”) exhibited a fine, firm tenderness. Van Oostrum had the good, or bad, luck to have as her evil foil, the sorceress Ortrud, a late cast replacement: the Viennese soprano Martina Serafin. Standing in for the unwell Anaik Morel, Serafin didn’t always control every last detail but brought a terrifying, exhilarating fire and frenzy to her witchy role. When, in the sinister moonlight, she stiffened the spine of Josef Wagner’s nobly sung but slightly too insipid Telramund, Serafin injected a Lady Macbeth-level of vehemence into her suspicion of Lohengrin and the godly threat he poses to her pagan realm.Unusually youthful and energetic, the King Heinrich sung by Finnish bass Timo Riihonen made us feel that Brabant still possessed muscle and backbone. Pick of the smaller roles, however, was Edwin Fardini’s herald, memorably polished in tone and phrase (pictured below). A big double chorus – which united the forces of the Opéra du Rhin itself with those of the Angers Nantes Opéra – navigated long, sometimes plodding, ensemble scenes with impact and authority. They located and conveyed the drama in Wagner’s choral blockbusters even when the direction dragged its feet. We could hear, for instance, why the wedding chorus “Treulich geführt” ("Here comes the bride...") presages not marital bliss but anguish and separation.Paradoxically, Siaud’s rather statuesque stagecraft was countermanded in the pit by playing of electric vitality and agility from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg. They made the preludes to acts one and three soar and sing; the strings magically divided, the woods packed with ominous, wistful colour. Pianissimo whispers struck as hard as fortissimo blasts. From first to last, the trumpets located in offstage boxes turned each of the varius fanfares into a little frisson of suspenseful delight. Aziz Shokhakimov – Uzbek-born, aged 35 – conducted with focus, flair and precision. We will hear a lot more from him.

During Lohengrin’s spellbinding narration, when the secret knight tells the Brabanters of his service to the Grail and of his father Parsifal, Spyres reads from a sacred text and distributes its leaves to the citizens. For Wagner, the words weigh heavily, and the words always count. Spyres had told me of his respect for the French Wagnerian tradition and its devotion to “the beauty of the text”. His own clarity of diction, and suppleness of line, consistently allows the libretto to glow. For his part, Rousset emphasises his wish “to get back to the text” with Wagner and restore a Lieder element to the performance of his work.

And Strasbourg is nothing if not a town of words. The free imperial city where Johannes Gutenberg experimented with moveable type during his decade’s residence (1434-1444) will take over from 23 April as Unesco’s World Book Capital for a year. Celebratory events include a festival devoted to ideas of Utopia, with Lohengrin itself as an early, distinctly ambiguous, part of the programme.

Wagner’s music-drama knows that knightly redeemers vanish, heaven-sent promises fail to materialise, and ideal cities crumble. I can happily report, however, that in Strasbourg Utopia takes the form of a variety of first-rate independent bookshops inconceivable in any British city of this size. (Invidious to name names, but if you visit don’t miss not only the all-purpose Librairie Kléber but the utterly delightful Quai des Brumes). No British region will ever support opera with the generosity that lets the Strasbourg company and its grand premises excel (pictured above by Boyd Tonkin). The city’s bookshop profusion, however, stems from the long French history of state-mandated protection for literary retailers. This led, most recently, to the enforcement of a book-delivery tax designed to curb the power of Amazon. Yes, readers do pay in some fashion for these well-stocked havens that seem, in the historic centre, to flourish on almost every street. But then salvation, as Lohengrin teaches us, has always called for a measure of sacrifice.

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