Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Lazarus Effect

November 21, 2010

Act I finale of Lohengrin Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

Wagner’s Lohengrin rode back into town on his swan this weekend at Los Angeles Opera in a largely successful and very attractive, unexpectedly new production. Unexpected in the sense that the show was originally announced as a revival of the company’s 2001 production, but on further contemplation, the company and director Lydia Steier elected to completely “repurpose” the materials from that last production to create something brand spanking new. And after seeing the premiere on Saturday, I can attest that no one would mistake this Lohengrin for the old one. In fact no one would mistake it for any of the other Wagner operas the company has mounted in recent years. L.A. Opera and music director James Conlon have invested a lot of time and money in staging most of Wagner’s operas over the last decade and has succeeded beautifully on nearly every occasion with a series of colorful, abstract, and sometimes symbolic productions from the Robert Wilson Parsifal, to Ian Judge’s rotating Tannhäuser, and, of course, the recently completed Achim Freyer Ring Cycle.

The Act III finale of Lohengrin Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

In contrast, the company’s second go at Lohengrin is as naturalistic as they come. But that is not to say that Ms. Steier doesn’t take any liberties with elements of the staging and story, but the visual sense of the show is accessible in a way that audience members who may have been alienated before are more comfortable with. Or at least one might assume this, given the polite reception she received on stage at the end of the show. In my opinion she deserved a far more enthusiastic response for this intelligent and very good looking production. The action is updated to the tail end of WWI on the border of France and Germany. The Saxon troops arrive in Brabant, whose population has been largely displaced into the three remaining walls of a bombed out cathedral, which dominate the stage and rotates throughout the opera to create different spaces. A field hospital has been set up among the ruins, and injured civilians are tended to by nurses. As the curtain rises, the entire cast and chorus is on stage frozen in position as a living tableau. Slowly the lights begin to rise as a light snow begins to fall that continues more or less throughout the entire rest of the opera. Soon, a small tent at the rear of the set lights up and shadowy figures are revealed: a surgeon, later revealed to be Telramund, is amputating the leg of a soldier who unfortunately does not survive the procedure.

Dolora Zajick as Ortrud Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

This detail in the opening minutes is critical, because much of the evening hangs on it. The Saxons arrive and when the accused Elsa prays for the arrival of her knight/savior no swan appears. Instead the projected images of war torn countryside on the giant backdrops are replaced by rippling water as seen from below while surfacing. The dead soldier from the overture comes back to life and exits the tent with a steel plated leg replacing his amputated one. The conceit is clever in that it emphasizes one of the most difficult aspects of this opera to pull off - that Lohengrin is seen as a miraculous and magical being by Elsa and the people of Brabant. He is connected to the Divine which is crucial in understanding him in opposition to Telramund, Ortrud, and everyone else in the opera. Steier takes this set up one step further by emphasizing the human qualities, both good and bad, of the rest of the characters. Telramund, one of the bad guys, is repeatedly put in positions where he is doing good both as a surgeon and later by tending to an abused soldier. Meanwhile the Saxons, whom Lohengrin and the citizens of Brabant intend to go into battle with, exhibit some not so nice behavior including assaulting the local men and women, injured or not. Steier is muddying the waters about who is good and who is evil unifying all of the characters in a more humanistic way and highlighting the contrast with a divine and healing Lohengrin.

Solie Isokoski and Ben Heppner Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

The sets, though crowded at times, are lovely and the rotating cathedral ruins keep things visually interesting particularly after a rather static first act. There's a cinematic quality to the war torn European countryside tableau and the video backdrops are really quite amazing. But all the visual wonders of the world can't completely make up for any musical deficiencies and luckily in terms of Conlon and the orchestra, those are nearly non-existent. The orchestra's playing has grown exponentially after its many months in the throws of the Ring and their Wagner has never sounded better. Conlon who took athletic and brisk pacing throughout the Ring seems to have taken a more reflective and luxurious pacing here, but it never drags. This is unquestionably some of Wagner's most beautiful music and the players of the orchestra and the chorus under director Grant Gershon have done admirably by it. The men in the chorus deserve particular mention considering how much time they spend on stage in this opera. They have a lot of stage business to do in this and their vocal performances came off quite well despite it.

James Johnson and Kristinn Sigmundsson with chorus Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2010

As for the principal stars of the productions, the success rate was a little more variable. Let me start by saying how impressive James Johnson's Telramund and Kristinn Sigmundsson's King Heinrich are. Both have made prior appearances here and their important contributions to the evening shouldn't be overlooked. Solie Isokoski sang the role of Elsa with a beautiful bright tone throughout. Her voice was warm and the sound rounded, smooth, and easily heard, which fit well with the character, though at times I might have wished for more of a piercing quality. Probably one of the most anticipated debuts of the evening was Dolora Zajick's Ortrud, her first turn at this role or any Wagner role. (That is if you don't count her handful of performances as a Valkyrie during her time as an Adler fellow in San Francisco in the 80s as a commenter points out.) Zajick is the world's leading Verdi mezzo and her Amneris, Azucena, and Eboli fill houses around the world. As would be expected her voice is big and powerful and never harsh. However, for me it lacked a certain Germanic quality with the consonants gone missing. Her acting was certainly good, though, and I imagine with more time in this area of the opera rep she'll be formidable in this role as well. Of course, the biggest name associated with the production is Ben Heppner in the title role, which initially brought him to international fame. He's been singing the role for two decades now and it would be unreasonable to expect his performance now to be equivalent to that of even a decade a go. He had a difficult evening even compared to the final dress rehearsal performance I'd heard earlier in the week. There are still large portions of his performance that are brilliant with a heroic ease that is unparalleled. But on Saturday, there were also plenty of moments dominated by snap, crackle, and pop.

On balance thought, this is undoubtedly a very successful and satisfying Lohengrin and as likely good of one as you might see on any world-class opera stage these days. It comes recommended and runs through December 12.



Dolora Zagik's Ortrud is NOT her first foray into Wagner. It is her first foray into a principal role in a Wagner opera, but she has sung Wagner before. While she was an Adler Fellow in the 80's she was one of the Walkyres in the SFO telecast of Walkyre with Gwyneth Jones as Brunhilde.

I would be happy to provide you guys with the video evidence.

Please correct that mistake.
Having seen Lohengrin yesterday, I must say that I'm a bit unnerved about this production. Being somewhat familiar with Lydia Steier's experimental work for theater (she's a friend of a friend), I was curious to see how stark or raw or cool her Wagnerian strokes might be. But the totality of all the hokey and vaguely-naturalistic gestures felt a little sophomoric. I'm particularly torn about Lohengrin's incarnation as a deceased soldier and his psychedelic awakening... while ultimately a fine idea, it seems a rather lot of narrative convolution to dump on audiences within the first few minutes.

Heppner was also not in top form for Sunday's matinée, with a pretty rocky first act and a noticeable memory lapse in the third. And, my lord, is it really so impossible for an opera to have a realistic fight scene?

Truth be told, I love feeling so conflicted about a production... I was already sketching costume designs as I settled in for the train ride home.
I know what you mean. I'm sure that Steier was faced with her own set of constraints from the company and would probably have had something a bit different to say with unlimited time, resources, and freedom. Still, I was intrigued with the idea of Lohengrin risen from the dead and how that made more sense in terms of everyone's reaction to him. The vocal part is an issue, however.
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