Review: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin” – Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009

Houston Grand Opera presented Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in a new production co-developed with the Grand Theatre de Geneve. The co-production premiered in the Swiss city in 2007.

[Below: Patrick Summers, Music Director of Houston Grand Opera conducts his first “Lohengrin” series; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The opera boasted a stellar cast, uniformly in fine voice, and marked the Wagnerian opera conducting debut of Houston Grand Opera Music Director Patrick Summers. It was the first German opera performed by the company in eight years, permitting the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, only a little more than a decade old, to reach a new level of maturity appropriate for the operatic works of Wagner and Richard Strauss. (Like the opera orchestras in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Houston’s opera orchestra replaced seasonal orchestras comprised of their city’s principal symphony orchestra during their off season and downtime.)

The “Lohengrin” performances saw the company debuts of New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill in the title role, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Elsa, and Austrian basso Günther Groissböck as King Heinrich.

[Below: Simon O’Neill is Lohengrin; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

One of Houston Grand Opera Studio’s most eminent slumni, Richard Paul Fink, appeared as Telramund, his fifth major role with the company. Christine Goerke, who had sung Mozart at HGO previously, returned to sing the role of Ortrud.

[Below: Having become homeless outcasts, Ortrud (Christine Goerke) encourages Telramund (Richard Paul Fink) to accuse Lohengrin of sorcery; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Soviet Bloc Brabant

The production gained some notoriety in both Geneva and Houston because of the premise that “Lohengrin” could be presented as taking place during the Stalinist era of mid-20th century Russia or some similar totalitarian state behind the Iron curtain. Heinrich and the Herald were costumed in Soviet bloc uniforms, and, in the first scene, Ortrud and Telramund sat at a desk prepared to make accusations of citizen Elsa and her co-conspirator Lohengrin, as if they were members of some Soviet Politboro.

[Below: the scene in which Elsa is accused, here as presented at the Grand Theatre de Geneve with Petra Lang as Ortrud and Jukka Rasilainen as Telramund; edited image, based on a Mario de Curto photograph for the Grand Theatre de Geneve.]

Not So Thoroughly Modern Lohengrin

The production by British concept director Daniel Slater and his frequent collaborator for set and costume design, Robert Innes Hopkins, has been deemed “modernistic” because it includes mid-20th century military uniforms (some intended to portray Soviet bloc officials) and women’s fashions and in one scene arms a platoon of uniformed soldiers with assault weapons. However, even with such eccentricities, the production rarely deviated from Wagner’s story line and, of course, followed his libretto for what is essentially the exposition of a medieval myth.

There were very few moments in the entire production when I had a sense that we were witnessing events taking place in modern times. The characters in “Lohengrin” repeatedly accuse one another or defend themselves against the charge of using witchcraft or sorcery, and submit disputes to God to adjudicate through bouts of mortal combat. (I find the plots of Mozart’s two and a quarter century old “Abduction from the Seraglio” and “Marriage of Figaro” having a far more “modern” feel than any production of “Lohengrin”, whether or not the Brabantian knights and soldiers carry assault rifles.)

Presenting an opera whose premises are so foreign to contemporary thought apparently bothers some opera managements, whose antidote is time-shifting the opera to something nearer to us in time. Depending on the plot, this might work. However, it is just as likely that “Lohengrin” will attract exactly the same audience with less dissonance between Wagner’s plot and the sets and costumes if the characters are in a dress that we associate with the early middle ages.

[Below: a wedding march takes place in the Soviet Republic of Brabant, edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Grand Theatre de Geneve.]

The audiences that opera managements wish to attract or worry about losing likely include many persons who have embraced television and film stories of “vampire slayers” who fall in love with their prey, schools for wizards, good and evil sorcerers allied for or against magic rings, and wolfmen and  vampires attending high school in the American Northwest. Such managements likely underestimate the ability of their audiences to respond positively to “Lohengrin” played straight.

Having revealed my thoughts on the matter, it is instructive to read Summers’ own thoughts on “Lohengrin”. He had defended the general concept of operatic time-shifts, that were particularly the rage at the turn of the 21st century at an “apres opera” discussion following a HGO performance I attended earlier this year. He approves of the practice of finding relevance between the operas of the standard repertory and our current times. In the accompanying program notes to “Lohengrin” he enunciated his own view of the modern meaning of the opera:

“The hero (artist) Lohengrin arrives to save Elsa (the innocence of the art itself) as long as his origin in unknown; he is thwarted by jealousy and hatred (the role of commerce in art, and dueling ideologies on how resources are spent) only to reveal that he is one of the guardians of the Holy Grail (pure art).”

Ultimately, except in the case of a production so outrageous that it spoils the operatic experience, it is the musical performance that matters most in judging whether a night at the opera was a more than routine evening. The performances of O’Neill, Pieczonka, Goerke and Fink, the brilliant sound of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted with great sensitivity by Patrick Summers, rather than the producer’s ideas as how to make the opera “relevant” for us, is what made this one of the great performances of “Lohengrin”.

Notes on the Production

Hopkins created a unit set whose back wall could split apart to permit both a distant outdoor scene and to allow an interior space to be moved into center stage that represented the bridal couple’s bedroom.

[Below: Lohengrin (Simon O’Neill) and Elsa (Adrienne Pieczonka), on their wedding night, discuss whether it would be useful for her to know his name; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The main set suggested the great room of large library, whose shelves were only sparsely filled with books. Stacks of bookshelves at the rear of the hall were divided between first and second floors. It was in front of the second floor bookshelves that four herald trumpeters would appear, during the many occasions in this opera for which their services are required.

[Below: Robert Innes Hopkins’ basic set for “Lohengrin”‘; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

During Summers’ arresting prelude, a forecurtain rose to reveal a darkened stage with a distant glow at the horizon. In time, we see the silhouettes of Lohengrin and the small boy whom we, the audience, know is Elsa’s young brother, Gottfried. In Slater’s conception, he always appears as human, never assuming an avian form.

Groissböck’s pleasing light-timbred basso defined a substantive Heinrich, much of whose part is exposition of what happened in the past or is a proclamation of the rules of procedure for the events of the present. Fink, the first instigator of action, was a vivid Telramund, singing eloquently in his accusation of Elsa as a fraticidal criminal. In mortal combat (conducted in choreographed slow motion) Fink’s Telramund loses to Elsa’s champion, Lohengrin.

Losing a battle that has been set up to reveal (the Christian) God’s will makes Telramund and his consort, Ortrud, outcasts. In one of the admittedly arresting images devised by Slater and Hopkins, Telramund and Ortrud become homeless persons, living with some hobos outside the walls of an industrial building in which Elsa appears to be residing.

Goerke, about whose Rosalinda in Johann Strauss’ comic masterpiece “Die Fledermaus” at San Francisco I have reported (see “Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006) has developed into a formidable Wagnerian mezzo. The contrast between her voice and that of Pieczonka’s, two voices of both purity and power, was notable. Both voices exhibit the style that I have characterized as bel canto Wagnerian singing, one of the features of the current millenium that make contemporary Wagnerian performances so exciting.

Also impressive was O’Neill’s vibrant tenor voice. Unlike most heldentenors his voice does not have the pronounced baritonal sound, that is considered an admirable trait of Wagnerian tenors, but within his range his voice has a bright tone that soars above the orchestra at full volume. His great third act aria In fernem land was as extraordinary vocally as it was affecting dramatically.

Some additional thoughts on Wagnerian myth

I have written elsewhere that eight of Wagner’s operas presented in a certain order chronicle the battle between Wotan and his family of gods on side with the forces of Christianity on the other. “Parsifal”, followed by “Lohengrin”,  represent the time when Wotan and his forces are in retreat and “Tannhauser” the time when the forces of Christianity have almost completely extirpated their foe.

In the three Wagnerian operas mentioned above, the forces on both the Christian and pagan sides are made interesting by the music that the artists sing and the orchestration which accompanies them, even though their concerns are likely quite remote from our own. There is little any stage director can do to “connect” us to these characters’ thoughts without rewriting a new story to the opera (as, say, Verdi did in “Aroldo” to save the music he wrote for “Stiffelio” – as it turned out, an effort that was both unsuccessful and ultimately needless since the latter survived anyway). But since Wagner’s operas sell well just as they are, why even try to place the story in an unintended context?

[Below: Elsa (Adrianne Pieczonka), having been insulted during her wedding procession, is consoled by her handmaidens; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Great works of art survive centuries of re-interpretation, as Wagner’s will continue to do. Houston Grand Opera has mounted an extraordinarily well performed work in an interesting and visually impressive physical production. Even observing the dissonance between the physical production and the story being presented, I still found it an evening well spent.

[Below: the populace of Brabant shows its appreciation of Lohengrin having been named Brabant’s protector; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]