Sunday, January 16, 2000

Lopez-Cobos marks 500th with concert 'Lohengrin'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Some of the most exquisite music Wagner ever composed exists in his romantic opera, Lohengrin, heard in concert version for the first time at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this weekend in Music Hall.

        As with past concert operas, the CSO has spread Lohengrin's three acts over two days. The rarity of this “mini-festival,” conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos, was not lost on the 1,892 listeners who came for the first act Friday, and cheered at its conclusion. The opera was last heard under the baton of James Levine at the May Festival in 1974, and was last staged by Cincinnati Opera in 1949.

        Set in the historical backdrop of medieval Germany, Lohengrin combines mythical legend with earthbound characters. Political intrigue rages behind the scenes: Friedrich von Telramund aspires to the throne, but his young charge, Elsa, stands in his way. When he accuses Elsa of murdering her brother, her innocence is defended by a knight who appears in a boat pulled by a swan.

        The orchestra was sunken about 2 feet into the pit, with the soloists on an elevated platform behind it, backed by the May Festival Chorus.

        The radiant, high harmonies of the Prelude — representing angels bearing the Holy Grail — shimmered in Music Hall's acoustic, and when the low strings and brass entered, the sound was quite beautiful. The orchestra played well, although it overpowered the lower voices at times, and the winds were inconsistent. Mr. Lopez-Cobos' tempos and sense of line were admirable.

        In the title role, Kansas-born heldentenor Robert Dean Smith project ed a powerful, ringing voice in his CSO debut. His “Nun sei bedankt” — thanking the swan — had wonderful control and nuance; his singing was memorable for its brilliance.

        He and soprano Margaret Jane Wray, as Elsa, were a well-matched couple. Ms. Wray eloquently conveyed her feelings in Elsa's Dream, and her upper notes soared effortlessly over orchestral textures. (She used a cane because of a knee injury this week.)

        Stepping in for an ill Greer Grimsley, baritone Roy Stevens was an impressive Friedrich. He sang convincingly without a score, and communicated a forceful personality, making his exchanges with King Heinrich, sung by bass Charles Austin, compelling. Although Mr. Austin never departed from his score to look at the other characters, his delivery was firm and powerful.

        Bass-baritone William McGraw was a precise King's Herald, his words punctuated by herald trumpets perched on the chorus' top riser. Mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel (Ortrud) made a cameo appearance; her big scene comes in Act II.

        The chorus plays an important role, but the May Festival Chorus, prepared by Michael Slon, was not as precise as usual and text was muddy. The singers created a glorious finale, though, in the great chorus of jubilation at the act's end.

        To open, board Chairman Peter Strange recognized Mr. Lopez-Cobos for his 500th performance with the CSO on Friday, the highest number of any music director.


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