Lohengrin, LA Opera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Directed by Lydia Steier
Conducted by James Conlon
Starring Ben Heppner, Dolora Zajick, Soile Isokoski, and James Johnson
Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Dec. 12, 2010

For many patrons, the satisfying thing about opera in recent years has been that it encompasses the visual as well as auditory senses. It can be a complete entertainment. Modern productions generally treat opera as theater, overcoming some of the objections from would-be audiences who see many of the basic stories as simply preposterous. Liberties are often taken with time and place.

Sadly though, Lydia Steier’s LA Opera production of “Lohengrin” is stiff and dull. Costumes are World War I vintage, in an attempt to bring the story more up to date; the intent seeming to be to make the point that this is still a broken world. Regrettably, what happens instead is that the silly becomes emphasized and the universality of myth is lost. Her technique has been described as “Euro trash”—a kind of director-driven production that bends the original meaning and setting of an opera as well as the norms of propriety. Although she did not do the latter, her distortions of the conventions are distractions adding nothing to the original.

The set is the ruins of a medieval (now roofless) church. There is a perpetual snowfall (which miraculously fails to lead to any accumulations). As the curtain goes up, the church is serving as a field hospital with bloodied and bare-chested soldiers (members of the chorus) lying about on cots, seemingly unaffected by the snow.

In the interest of illustrating that the “Lohengrin” myth still has some currency, Steier has placed this 10th century story in a quasi-World War I setting. The army of the Duchy of Brabant is camped in the ruins. It has been a bloody battle and the wounded are on pallets in this makeshift field hospital. They are being tended to by Friedrich of Telramund (James Johnson) who is medic, as well as having been the guardian of the heirs to the Duchy. The heirs were a brother and sister. When they were young, the siblings had gone for a walk in the woods and the young boy disappeared. As is the wont in opera, and sometimes in life, the guardian had designs on his remaining ward and her future duchy. Ortrud (Dolora Zajick), the conniver, has convinced Telramund to marry her instead. She has also convinced him that she can prove that the girl, Elsa of Brabant (Soile Isokoski), drowned her brother. Rather than marrying Elsa, as was his intent, Telramund has married Ortrud, and publicly accuses Elsa of fratricide, stating that he should instead be the natural successor to the Duchy and Elsa should be condemned to death. When accused of her brother’s death in front of the village and the troops (none who can believe that the fair and lovely young woman has done such a horrible deed but, with classic mob fervor, they are ready to convict) Elsa does not defend herself. She tells of a dream in which a knight in shining armor comes to her.

Here is the creakiest part of this production. Elsa’s knight in shining armor, Lohengrin, is a very paunchy Ben Heppner, dressed in a tight, dirty, sweat stained undershirt visible beneath his open jacket. He emerges from a tent at the edge of the set that serves as the surgical theater of the hospital. Wagner had Lohengrin arriving on a swan, about which there is considerable singing; however, there is no physical evidence of it in this production. During the overture, if you had looked very carefully at the darkened set, you would have seen Ortrud carrying an amputated leg from the tent after the light within has been extinguished and the doctor has emerged. You are supposed to infer that the patient who lost his leg had died. On Heppner’s leg, visible as he emerges from the tent, he has what looks like a prosthesis done up in Reynolds wrap. This is Elsa’s knight in shining armor? I was once a damsel and I can tell you that distress or no distress I would not have pegged that guy as my rescuer, suitor, or even gentleman caller. The supposed remnant of knightly regalia serving as his lower leg is confusing and funny; it does not connote knighthood.

Heppner’s wooden acting only adds to the dissonance between man and character. He is a renowned heldentenor who has become a little long in the tooth. It is not simply his physical appearance, for certainly many a famous opera star has had the same physical limitations, nor is it only the wooden acting. More importantly, it is his voice that fails him at times; it fails to dazzle.

Heppner’s stiffness and lack of engagement (he spent most of his performance apparently focused on the prompter’s box, despite his many previous appearances as Lohengrin) hampered other singers’ attempts at engagement. Soile Isokoski, as Elsa, sang beautifully if perhaps not exceptionally, but how could she emote to a completely wooden Heppner? It takes two to tango or sing a romantic duet. Kristinn Sigmundsson (as King Heinrich of Saxony, who has come to rally the troops) has a somewhat less challenging task. As king, he can naturally act independently of Heppner. After all, what King in his right mind spends much time thinking about the emotions of those around him?

Listening to Dolora Zajick’s magnificent mezzo, particularly in the final act, it is mind boggling to think that this is the first time ever that she has been cast as evil Ortrud, the conniving wife of Friedrich of Telramund. It is a wonderful and demanding role for a mezzo; could there be another singer who could match her power? Yes, she does ham it up a bit; however, the irrepressible Zajick manages to overcome Steier’s direction and breathe life into her part. Unfortunately, for the most part, the singers mechanically face the audience to perform.

You might say that Wagner’s choruses put the grand in grand opera. If that is so, then “Lohengrin” is the grandest of the grand. This LA Opera production features a chorus of more than 160 singers, under the always able direction of Grant Gershon. They rise to the demands of the score, and when they are performing it is glorious.

At the center of this tale is Wagner’s exploration of belief and trust. After Lohengrin rushes in (all be it slowly) and rescues fair Elsa by dueling with Telramund (perhaps the worst staging of a duel I’ve ever seen) he asks her to marry him. She is thrilled and readily agrees to the marriage and his condition that she never ask his name, his birth, nor his ancestors. This gives Ortrud the wedge to put doubt in Elsa’s mind: how can she marry someone she knows nothing about? Good Question. Elsa cannot leave this doubt alone and on her wedding night she tries to wheedle it out of Lohengrin by asking him now to trust her; she promises that she would not tell a soul if he would confide in her. It does not end well. For me this is the part of the story that is most dissonant with the World War I setting. Acceptable in a myth, Lohengrin’s demand for unquestioning trust, down to not knowing his name, from the woman he professes to love is the stuff of fairy tale, not history. Although the point can be made allegorically that the demand for trust is the substance of which dictators are made and the basis of much of religion, it is no better told with 20th century costumes than in its original setting. In fact, I would find it more striking left simply as a myth.

The music is magnificent, James Conlon‘s orchestral direction soars and gives life to the static staging, and most of the voices are more than competent. Too bad that you have to look past the production itself to thoroughly enjoy this “Lohengrin.”

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