Lohengrin, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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By Richard Wagner
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
Directed by Daniel Slater
San Francisco Opera
Oct. 20-Nov. 9, 2012

What’s in a name? Plenty, especially if your name happens to be Rumpelstiltskin or Calaf, the Unknown Prince of Puccini’s “Turandot” or the hero of Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” The concept of a name having the power of life or death over its bearer crops up in civilizations even older than those of our familiar myths and fairy tales. But, in the case of the production currently on the San Francisco Opera stage, the power lies not so much in Lohengrin’s name as with the director.

Opera in the past several decades has notoriously become a director’s game. Sometimes the audience wins — sometimes not. To take a medieval legend, steeped in holy mysticism and black magic, and plunk it down in a kind of pre-Nazi Germany somewhere between the two World Wars seems to me a wrongheaded notion. But nobody asked me, and that’s just what director Daniel Slater has done.

It doesn’t work. Swords mingle with guns. The chorus is dressed in uniforms or dowdy everyday clothes while the lovers, Elsa and Lohengrin, wear more timeless and appropriate garb. The (quite ugly) set, by Robert Innes Hopkins, looks more like a barracks than a palace and the swan, which carries Lohengrin to the rescue of the wrongly accused Elsa, is a pair of shadowy wings, sometimes attached to a person, sometimes to a post.

When the two villains are cast from the palace out into the streets, they huddle in the shadow of a wall with a bunch of homeless people and that seems fitting. But, when the curtain comes up on the wedding scene, Elsa and Lohengrin are standing side by side in an elevated, brightly-lit bedchamber looking for all the world like Barbie and Ken, while the chorus passes below chanting the famous Wedding March. The audience actually laughed. Director Slater has claimed to have been inspired by the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but that doesn’t come across the footlights. The moral, mythic and religious implications of the piece would have been better served by setting it in medieval times and downplaying the politics.

Lohengrin is a knight of the Holy Grail, the son of Parsifal (who gets a Wagner opera, even longer than this one, all to himself). But the Grail cult went out a long, long time ago and does not mesh with contemporary thought. Sent to defend Elsa against the accusation of murdering her brother, Lohengrin falls in love with her and gives up his immortality in the process. If only she will refrain from asking his name. But that’s like asking a kid not to put beans up his nose. Urged on by the evil Ortrud, she badgers him until he gives in, necessitating his return to the service of the Grail, never to be seen again. Before he goes, however, he restores Elsa’s brother, the heir to the kingdom, to human form. Far from being murdered, Ortrud has turned little brother Gottfried into a swan — the very swan that delivers Lohengrin to the shores of Brabant. And all this happened in 1950s Hungary? Or Germany in the ’30s? Really!

But it’s actually about the music, isn’t it? And that was delivered beautifully by Nicola Luisotti and the orchestra, from the first shimmering other-worldly chords of the Prelude, right up to the end. The particular glory of this staging was the splendid American heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich in the title role. Handsome, strong and sure of voice and a convincing actor, especially in his big scene in the honeymoon suite with Elsa, he could qualify as any girl’s knight in shining armor (except he wore a long leather coat when he wasn’t in his wedding tux).

His lady-love, Elsa, sung by the beautiful (they did make a stunning couple) Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, was more problematic. Accused of murdering her little brother, at her trial Elsa sings that she lifted up her voice to heaven for a deliverer and was heard. Strange, as I could hardly hear her slight instrument in the 13th row. She did get better as time wore on, but was no match for Jovanovich.

Petra Lang, who dazzled this reviewer in the 2007 “Tannhauser,” did it again as the evil Ortrud, a role she will repeat this summer in Bayreuth. Gerd Grochowski sang and acted well as her weak but ambitious husband, Friedrich Telramund. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was an impressively imperial King Heinrich. The San Francisco chorus, especially as regards the highly militant men, was splendid. But there is no doubt that Jovanovitch and Lang walked away with the show. Actually the appropriate metaphor would be “sailed away in a boat drawn by a swan.” Except there wasn’t one.

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