Richard Wagner: Lohengrin (Bayreuth, 1967)
In the year of the premiere of Wolfgang Wagner’s second Lohengrin the eponymous hero found himself in a tight spot. At the end of the 1950s Sandor Kónya had taken the scepter in Bayreuth from Wolfgang Windgassen as the principal Knight of the Swan; at the height of his career in 1959, Kónya featured on a recording opposite Elisabeth Grümmer as Elsa (Orfeo C 691063). On the evening of the 1967 premiere of the new version however, the Hungarian tenor was gravely indisposed. No fewer than four tenors then stepped into the breach to sing his part. The first of them, James King, promptly sang his way to gaining “first night rights” for the following year. In 1968, however, Rudolf Kempe was no longer on the rostrum, though he was key to the success of the live recording of the second performance in 1967, which is now available on the Orfeo label (C 850113). Seven years earlier Kempe, with his sound instinctive feeling for music drama, had already plumbed the “mystic abyss” and conducted the entire Ring cycle. Yet his striving for continuous musical transparency resulted in an ever stronger degree of refinement. The 1967 Lohengrin may undoubtedly be viewed as the crowning glory of this development.
James King (1925-2005) stood at that time on the cusp of his Bayreuth career, which had begun one year earlier with the role of Siegmund. He had already sung Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, which was for many years one of his regular venues. Anyone who is familiar with the baritone origins of the tenor from Kansas, USA, may well be surprised at the tremendous dynamic grading in the suspended high registers through to the sonorous piano passages that he was capable of at his Bayreuth debut in the role of the Knight of the Swan. He kept that role in his repertoire for more than a quarter of a century, singing it right up to the end of his career at new venues – a feat which places James King in the hand-picked league of tenors capable of singing the overtly dramatic roles of their fach with a lean, “Italian” timbre.
The Elsa at James King’s side in this case was Irish-born Heather Harper, who went on to become famous for her performances and premieres of works by Benjamin Britten. With her superlative, highly-spun lyrical phrasing and many nuances her “foray” into the realms of Wagner is a pure listening pleasure. Even the challenging breadth of the role of Elsa did not apparently entice Heather Harper for one moment to force her voice. And how often does one hear, even in the dramatic turn of events in the nuptial chamber, such poignant vocal intensification delivered with such simplicity?
The performer whose Bayreuth career would enjoy an even longer term was yet another singer from the Commonwealth in this cast of Lohengrin: Sir Donald McIntyre was brilliant as Telramund with heroic baritone command, and so his continued success at Bayreuth in roles like Dutchman, Amfortas, Klingsor, Kurwenal and Wotan/Wanderer was hardly surprising in retrospect.
Grace Hoffman (1921-2008) as Ortrud was able to look back at a comparable number of roles at Bayreuth to Sir Donald McIntyre; indeed, her many acclaimed roles from 1957 onwards at the Festspielhaus would include Brangäne, Fricka and Waltraute. Such a role call doubtless serves as proof that Ortrud’s highly dramatic arias can certainly be accomplished by a truly dramatic mezzo-soprano providing that, as in the case of Grace Hoffman, the technical prerequisites are in place. The last of the soloists at that performance were Thomas Tipton as an elegant King’s Herald; the reason for his reputation as the leading gentleman baritone of the Bavarian State Opera in those days is audible here (and he also played Wolfram in Bayreuth in 1967); and the “outsider” so to speak, in the midst of these English-speaking singers who nevertheless sang in perfect German: Karl Ridderbusch (1932-1997) with his truly balmy bass as King Heinrich. He too was giving his Bayreuth debut that year, and he was to give innumerable performances over the years as Daland, Fasolt, Hunding, Titurel, Marke, Pogner and ultimately in the very contrasting roles of Hagen and Hans Sachs.