"Swan madness" seizes audiences as Netrebko and Beczala take on Wagner's "Lohengrin"

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DRESDEN, GERMANY >> They've lit up the stage together in lyric works by Puccini, Massenet and Tchaikovsky. Now Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala have taken on a tougher challenge with their first forays into Wagner.

And their debuts in "Lohengrin" as Elsa, the maiden in distress, and her heroic knight have drawn raves from critics and standing ovations from audiences, who snapped up every ticket for the four-performance run at the Semperoper Dresden, which ended Sunday.

"Schwahnsinn!" — that's how the online newspaper Merkur headlined its review, a play on the German words for "madness" and "swan," the vehicle for Lohengrin's entrance in Act 1. Die Welt said of the performance, with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden: "Some rave about their best 'Lohengrin' ever!"

The Associated Press sat down with the Russian soprano and the Polish tenor to talk about the experience. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Q: How did this project come about?

B: I was singing Strauss songs in Munich with Thielemann, maybe four or five years ago, and he just started to talk about Wagner. At that time I was: 'Stay away from me with that kind of repertory!' The next try was a year later and, step-by- step he just kept at it. ... 'Oh, Anna will be there, too.' Somehow we ended up in Dresden.

N: I always wanted to sing Wagner, only this one role, Elsa. With Thielemann, with a German orchestra. I had my conditions. I wanted to go in the right way.

Q: Is it difficult singing in German?

B: I learned German after I got a contract to sing in Linz 24 years ago. So it's my second language. And Anna is starting to learn it now.

N: No! (Laughs.) Of course, after you spend five or six weeks, the language is there in some words and some things I can understand, but it's been very hard because of the pronunciation. In one article they even called me Eliza Doolittle because I really try so hard.

B: But you have some experience, singing Strauss' "Four Last Songs" ...

N: Yes, but I didn't memorize a word. I had the text in front of me the whole time.

Q: Is it a vocal stretch to sing Wagner, who is usually considered to require big voices?

B: I've been singing 'Ballo' (Verdi's 'Un Ballo in Maschera') for six or seven years already and Lohengrin doesn't need any bigger voice. But the German language makes it a different story because you don't sit just on the vocal line, you have to use the consonants, which gives it a special kind of heaviness.

N: I was surprised when I came here because everyone told me, 'You sing too loud, too much voice.' I realized that in many places, there's nothing in the orchestra for Elsa, it's very soft. I used a completely childish voice, very innocent, very bright, like I sang 15 years ago. ... Until she starts to get upset in the second act, and then you have to push.

B: The orchestration is really like Mozart in many places. It's very clear, very straight, not so much sound. Especially with Thielemann.

N: They want it like that. Not like we're used to hearing Wagner ...

B: ... Two people screaming at each other.

Q: What appeals to you about your characters?

N: I chose Elsa because the role is big, it's complete, it has development. I love the girl. She's just the girl from Brabant, a proud princess who has all her doubts and falls in love and all this is happening in her head.

B: Actually, 'Lohengrin' should be called 'Elsa' because it's her story. It's not the story of Lohengrin. He disappears from the stage in the same condition in which he came. But I love to be a knight, to save the virgin.

Q: Will you sing more Wagner?

B: Once you start, it's like you hold out a small finger and then they grab you by the hand and you disappear forever into the Wagner universe. 'Lohengrin' will not be my mainstream repertory for sure, but one production in a season would be great. And maybe it would happen that I'd sing 'Parsifal' someday.

N: I'm doing 'Lohengrin' in St. Petersburg, but after that I don't know. I think I would love the role of Isolde (in 'Tristan und Isolde').

B: Unsingable! That's hard stuff, very hard.

N: I know. That is the one I would like ... but I don't think so. We'll see.


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