Nézet-Séguin's first full Wagner opera - masterful

In Montreal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Metropolitainin "Lohengrin," with soprano Heidi Melton, an up-and-coming Wagnerian star, as Elsa.
In Montreal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Metropolitainin "Lohengrin," with soprano Heidi Melton, an up-and-coming Wagnerian star, as Elsa. (CHRISTINA ALONSO)
Posted: August 14, 2013

MONTREAL - Few operas are as daunting and intoxicating for performers and audiences as Wagner's. So is it any wonder that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin compared his first full foray into that world as a coming-of-age moment?

"There's not another context in which I'd rather lose my Wagner virginity," he declared before Sunday's concert version of Lohengrin at Festival Lanaudière, held annually in the countryside north of Montreal.

Though a standard at the world's large opera houses, Lohengrin is seldom heard elsewhere; this was its Quebec premiere. Most orchestras, and certainly not Nézet-Séguin's Orchestre Metropolitain du Montreal, can afford to cast top Wagnerian singers for a single performance. And this cast was one the Met would envy.

The reward was one of the largest crowds of the season, 4,000-plus, mostly Montrealers who had traveled nearly an hour into the hinterlands, as well as a Philadelphia Orchestra contingent that monitors outside activities of its music director. Audience attrition was minimal over the four-plus hours.

A rock-star response was reserved for Nézet-Séguin. No wonder he sticks with Montreal's No. 2 orchestra (which doesn't even pay its players a 52-week wage): This is where the love is. The only problem was that subsequent Lohengrin encounters might seem like a letdown for all concerned.

The idea for this one was hatched with relative spontaneity: Though top Wagnerian singers are booked years in advance, festival director Alex Benjamin grabbed mostly up-and-coming singers. The exception was Deborah Voigt, who came to them, wanting to try the role of Ortrud for the first time. But spontaneity took on a different meaning Wednesday when she canceled. You can imagine what the next few days were like.

"Don't ask," says Nézet-Séguin, shaking his head.

Benjamin soon had Jane Henschel flying in from Düsseldorf. In contrast to the mostly young, fresh-voiced cast, Henschel is a veteran Ortrud, whose use of words and musical gesture are a model of Wagnerian rhetoric. The festival's video screens caught every nuance with riveting effect.

The others? Brandon Javonovich and Heidi Melton were nearly ideal as Lohengrin and Elsa. His boyish tenor suited the ethereal knight-in-shining-armor moments, though he also showed shadier vocal resources when his enigmatic past was questioned. Melton hit all the right vocal and emotional colors, her precision sometimes compromised by her vocal voluptuousness (not a bad trade-off). Only Andrew Foster-Williams, in his first Wagner role, Telramund, seemed pushed to his limits. (Make note of Étienne Dupuis, who sang the minor role of the Herald, but has a fine Telramund in his future.)

Above all, Lohengrin is a conductor's opera - with hidden difficulties. While Wagner's Ring operas offer a succession of explosive events behind which an inexperienced conductor can take refuge, Lohengrin has minimal action, unfolding in a contemplative narrative over long spans of music. Despite an occasional slack recitative, Nézet-Séguin sustained everything in masterly fashion. His best moments were intimate ones, in which he drew a sweet glow from the strings, buoyed by subterranean tension. Bigger moments were more thrilling than usual because you knew what they'd grown out of, musically and emotionally.

Nézet-Séguin conducts The Flying Dutchman this fall in Rotterdam, and he probably has Ring cycles coming at him. But a more profound future may lie in Wagner operas that encourage exploration of psychological interiors, such as Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tristan und Isolde.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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