Review: Countdown to the Wagner Bicentennial – James Conlon Conducts Bel Canto “Lohengrin” – Los Angeles Opera, November 20, 2010

The Los Angeles Opera unveiled a provocative new production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, beautifully sung by a cast led by Canadian Tenor Ben Heppner in his Los Angeles Opera debut in the title role, with (also debuting) Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski as Elsa and American mezzo Dolora Zajick as Ortrud.

My comments will speak to the conducting and orchestral performance, the choral work, the singing by the principals, the unit set, the stage direction, and the costumes.

The Orchestral Performance

When Conductor Conlon assumed the music directorship of the Los Angeles Opera in 2006, he committed the company to a cycle of seven Wagner operas, which, to date, have included a revival of the colorful David Hockney “Tristan and Isolde” (2008) and the ambitious and controversial new productions of the four operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungs” by Achim Freyer (2009 and 2010). “Lohengrin” represents the sixth opera. Even though audience and reviewer reactions diverged on the new “Ring”, there exists substantial unanimity on the insights that Conlon has into Wagner’s music. His invariably informative lectures on whatever opera he is scheduled to conduct, are presented in the hour before each of his performances. Those lectures are genuine L. A. hits.

But, above all, it is the superb sound that Conlon obtains from the still relatively young Los Angeles Opera Orchestra (this is the company’s 25th anniversary season) that makes any Conlon conducting assignments and especially Wagner a must see and hear proposition.

[Below: Conductor James Conlon; edited image from]

Notes on the Choral Performance

As I mentioned in my review of a Houston Grand Opera performance of “Peter Grimes” the previous weekend, an opera company’s chorus director (in Los Angeles the excellent Grant Gershon), in collaboration with the men and women of the chorus, put months of work into preparation of the choral parts before the first rehearsals with the orchestra. “Lohengrin” is the ultimate Wagnerian choral opera and one of the most challenging of any in the operatic repertory. But it is the conductor who synthesizes the sound of the orchestra, chorus and principals. Conlon was able to show off the wonderful vocal talents of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, and the fruit of Gershon’s good works.

A half-century ago, operatic choruses, including those in “Lohengrin”, often would be clothed in identical monochromatic costumes and would move en masse, but the best of the modern opera choruses (especially if stage directors like David McVicar are around) are expected to be able to act as individual characters, each with their own imaginary backstories.

Stage director Lydia Steier has given the chorus a wide range of activities – most revolving around the carnage of war, either acting as the wounded or disabled, or those who attempt to heal or succor them. Some of the chorus’ characters escape from the horrors through drunken revelry as members of the wedding party.

[Below: members of the chorus react to occurrences in Brabant; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Notes on the Production

Dick Hofacker was the Scenery and Costume Designer of the production, which represents a radical reworking of Los Angeles Opera’s troubled 2001 mounting of “Lohengrin”. That unlucky production’s premiere performance was cancelled in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 and its financing suffered also from the fraud conviction of Amerindo Investment Advisors, whose chief executive had pledged a large contribution to the project. Fortunately, any lingering memories of this past history were obliterated by new costumes and a coherent reconceptualization of the staging.

The “Lohengrin” unit set is built around a bombed out public structure whose entrance gate is intact but whose roof has been destroyed and whose walls have been badly damaged. The structure sits on a turntable. For the whole first act the structure is immobile, with the audience seeing its interior space with the walls curving around the unit set’s perimeter towards the audience. Since the roofless structure is open to the elements, a light snow falls onto these huddled citizens of Brabant for much of the opera.

[Below: the population of Brabant, suffering from the consequences of a Great War, have gathered in the interior spaces of a bombed out public structure; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The story of “Lohengrin” is Wagner’s adult fairy tale built on medieval mythology. Its story is ambiguous and inarticulate, and some artists seem to believe there is a message in it which prophecies later events, as if it were composed by a Delphic oracle or a psychic.

Because the course of German history during and after Wagner’s time was so turbulent, those who believe “Lohengrin” had something to do with that turmoil have used the adjective “proto-fascist” to describe the opera. Production designers and stage directors have a choice of staging it, as Wagner intended, in medieval times, or moving it to some other time, with 20th century Germany a popular destination for the opera’s time travel.

Steier and Hobacker have chosen a costuming scheme that invites the audience to think of Brabant as a German municipality which has been devastated by the war with the “Hungarians”. The arrival of King Heinrich (Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson) is meant to boost demoralized spirits, but he becomes aware of the disappearance of the heir to the local duchy under mysterious circumstances.

[Below: King Heinrich (Kristinn Sigmundsson) shows compassion for Brabant’s wounded troops; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

It is at this story point that time-shifted “Lohengrin” productions become caught up in the dissonance between the opera’s plot and the intended historical analogy. The arrival of a mysterious knight and the agreement between all parties to the local dispute to submit the judgment to God’s will through a trial by combat causes many of the time-shifted productions to unravel conceptually. (For my critique of what I characterize as Robert Innes Hopkins’ Soviet Republic of Brabant, see Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009.)

However, if one subscribes to the thesis that “Lohengrin” is a proto-fascist precursor of future evils, the production here makes the point lightly and with arguable plausibility.  Germany, devastated by its bad showing in the big war, will turn to a champion who espouses a mythical, medieval German past. Heinrich and his men are costumed unmistakably as late 19th and early 20th century German soldiers.

Yet, the light touch has its advantage of making its point without off-putting too much those who like to keep “Lohengrin” located in a time long, long ago. Other than the World War era costumes, which are interesting in themselves, the flow of the story is traditional. To the extent that this is conceived as a “message” production, the message is as inarticulate as Lohengrin himself.

[Below: Lohengrin (Ben Heppner, center top) overpowers Telramund (James Johnson) in a trial by combat whose outcome shows God’s judgment; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

With the images evoked by the costumes fulfilling its obligation to anyone who believes “Lohengrin” is meant as a predictor of German history, the unit set, whatever one’s feelings are for the subject matter, itself proved felicitous for the story-telling. The turntable on which the war-ravaged structure is based, has at its front a forestage, which forms the pattern of waves, whose crests are at stage left and right and whose trough is at center stage.

During the first act the turntable is stationery. There is one remarkable lighting effect that occurs at the time that the swan is supposed to be visible in the first and third acts. Projections of the motion of waves are seen throughout the upper part of the set, as if we the audience are ourselves riding on the swan.

A Turntable for an Ortrud-centric Act

But it is in the second act that the stage turntable is set free, and the sets revolve at stage director Steier’s will to highlight the action. At the beginning of the second act Telramund (James Johnson), who has been discredited by nothing less than the expressed Will of God, feels the pangs of being a social outcast. He and his polytheistic wife, Ortrud (Dolora Zajick), are seen at the front gates, which during the first act was the portion of the turntable not seen by the audience.

[Below: Telramund (James Johnson, left) is demoralized by his loss in a trial by combat until his wife Ortrud (Dolora Zajick) convinces him that he was tricked by a magical spell; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

One doesn’t arrive in town to scramble the Brabantian power structure without there being a reaction. Ortrud doesn’t buy into the idea of God’s judgment settling a dispute by combat, because she doesn’t buy into the Christian God. She is able to see clearly that Lohengrin (Ben Heppner) is spellbound and that Lohengrin has revealed that Elsa (Soile Isokoski) has the power to destroy Lohengrin’s ability to control the situation in Brabant. Then it becomes simply an exercise in sowing doubt in Elsa’s mind.

(I recall the remarks of the late, great soprano Leonie Rysanek, who had sung both Elsa and Ortrud, who found Ortrud’s counseling of Elsa to learn more about the man she is marrying to be perfectly sensible. “What is Elsa supposed to call her husband?”, Rysanek would ask, “Mr Tom?”)

Here, the turntable becomes part of the action. The second act, in which Lohengrin has relatively little to do, is Ortrud-centric. On the outside of Brabant’s city gates, Ortrud, like Lady Macbeth, persuades her husband to screw his courage to a sticking post. Then, as the scenery turns, we see Elsa at her second story window with Ortrud calling from below.

The scenery turns and first we are outside where Elsa comes across the sobbing Ortrud on the ground, then it turns for us to be with the townspeople (the chorus) as they begin preparations (involving heavy drinking) for the wedding festivites. Another turn and we are outside with Elsa and her bridesmaids, and Elsa’s new friend, Ortrud, in her fancy dress. Then we are inside the structure in which the wedding party is disrupted by first Ortrud and then Telramund.

[Below: Ortrud (Dolora Zajick, left, in black outfit) disrupts the wedding procession as Elsa (Soile Isokoski, kneeling, wearing wedding veil); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

If the first act is mostly exposition and the second act is Ortrud’s, the final act is that in which any Lohengrin earns his paycheck, encompassing a great aria and extended scenes with both Elsa and the Brabantians.

The character Lohengrin, whose boyhood was spent with the Christian knights of Montsalvat, apparently assumed that a woman would accept his demands on unquestioning, literal blind faith. Magic spells cast on such an assumption, the opera “Lohengrin” teaches us, will have unsatisfactory results, as no woman wants to engage in anonymous sex with her husband.

[Below: Elsa (Soile Isokoski, left) suggests, in the spirit of wedding night openness, that Lohengrin (Ben Heppner) tell her what she should call him; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

One of the theses of this website is that Wagnerian opera can be sung as beautifully as in any French or Italian work. Every one of the cast’s principals met this standard. Heppner, whom I had seen earlier this year as Captain Ahab in the world premiere of Heggie’s new opera (see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010) was an authoritative Lohengrin, singing the legato lines of his great third aria In fernem land with distinction.

Soile Isokoski’s  international fame was forged in the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss.  I had seen her as the Marschallin in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”  in Paris (2002) and San Francisco (2007) – the latter with Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs. Isokoski showed a transparent purity of tone in the high tessitura that gives the role its otherworldly feel. Her voice contrasted nicely with the dramatic power of Dolora Zajick’s Ortrud. (For my review of Isokoski’s Marschallin, and Sigmundsson’s Ochs, see S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.)

Zajick, whose large voice seemed the most typically “Wagnerian” of the entire cast, paradoxically had not sung a Wagner role in performance before this evening. It took only her second act for me to conclude that in that hour’s time, she has emerged as one world’s most formidable Ortruds. (For my other reviews of Zajick performances, see Zajick is Victor in S. F. Opera “Maid of Orleans” – June 18, 2006 and Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010.)

Although I had not reviewed an opera in which James Johnson appeared previously, I was impressed with his Telramund. The other cast members were Eike Wilm Schulte as the King’s Herald; Robert MacNeil, Greg Fedderly, Museop Kim and Matthew Anchel as the Four Noblemen; and Rebecca Tomlinson, Renee Sousa, Sara Campbell and Helene Quintana as the Four Pages. Mark McCullough’s lighting designs were always interesting.

As we approach the bicentennial year for the composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, there is increasing evidence that the numbers of operatic artists capable of singing the roles of these two challenging composers beautifully and well is increasing, rather than disappearing as some had feared.

The orchestra and chorus is worth the price of admission, and the voices of Heppner, Isokoski, Johnson and Sigmundsson great strengths of this production. Zajick’s Ortrud is such a compelling portrait that I recommend attendance on simply her performance alone. Perhaps, as we move further into the 21st century, we will see the trailing edge of “Lohengrin” productions time-shifted to the 20th century. But one can do a lot worse (and many have) than this eyecatching effort by Steier and Hofacker. I recommend it.