A Second Look Review: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012

When I reviewed the first night performance of the Daniel Slater production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the War Memorial Opera House [see Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20,2012], I mentioned my plans to attend the third performance on October 28, and in a second review to comment more fully on the production design and the performance of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by the company’s music director, Nicola Luisotti.

This I will do.  But I will also speak to the entire experience of attending a Wagnerian opera, particularly one whose music is as familiar and accessible as “Lohengrin”, in San Francisco’s historic War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: the interior of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House; resized photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

An Outstanding Performance of a Masterpiece

My comments are meant for the veteran opera-goer; but also for persons new to live performances of Wagnerian operas, who might be tempted to try out such an opera, but who might be wary of whether the experience would be worth the San Francisco Opera’s hefty ticket prices.

For those sophisticated about live opera performances, my recommendation is unqualified. Every member of the cast was at the top of his or her form, and the four principals – Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin, Camilla Nylund as Elsa, Petra Lang as Ortrud and Gerd Grochowski as Telramund – as extraordinary and effective a quartet of performers as could be assembled anywhere in the world. Nylund, Lang and Grochowski, whose characters display out-sized emotions of anger, fear and despair, as well as Jovanovich, all proved to be consummate actors as well.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Visual Experience

Daniel Slater’s production, with sets designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, chose to tell the story of the spellbound knight in a mid-20th century setting (behind the Iron Curtain, during the Hungarian uprising of 1956). Hopkins’ sets were particularly effective in filling the spacious War Memorial stage with strong visual images that enhanced the operatic experience.

Even though some missed the quasi-medieval costuming associated with traditional “Lohengrin” productions of old (a point I will return to below), all of the mythic elements of the story were retained by the production.

[Below:King Heinrich (Kristinn Sigmundsson, left) leads Lohengrin (Brandon Jovanovich, left center, in black) and Elsa (Camilla Nylund, center, in wedding dress) in the bridal procession; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Counting performances of this production that I reviewed in both Houston and San Francisco, this is my third time I’ve seen Slater’s conceptualization. I’ve come to like the physical production with its imposing skylight ceiling, tall library shelves and interior spaces that easily hold the augmented chorus. In fact, the mid-2oth century trappings are arguably an illusion themselves – just a part of another spell.

After all, Lohengrin responds magically to a summons for a knight champion, arrives on an enchanted swan, has his hunting horn at his waist, wields a magic sword, and submits to God’s judgment through a trial by combat.

Ortrud conjures the pagan gods Wotan and Freia. Telramund dies trying to slice a tiny piece of flesh off of Lohengrin, as a defense against what he believes to be Lohengrin’s dark sorcery. There was a lot going on in the 1956 Hungarian revolt, but none of the kinds of wizardry that abounds in Slater’s supposedly “non-medieval” staging.

[Below: Camilla Nylund as Elsa; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A Digression about the Tenth Century “Chessboard”

Slater, in his program notes, raises the issue of costuming the opera’s characters to represent the European tenth century, thought to be the time in which “Lohengrin” takes place. The tenth century, we know from our schoolbooks, was during the historical period in which Europe was engaged in what I call “chessboard geopolitics” in which kings, queens, and bishops engaged in struggles for temporal power, castles were becoming important, and knights were often a wild card in the local politics.

Yet, that said, the events in “Lohengrin” would not have been any more familiar to a historical tenth century person than they would to a person active during the Hungarian Revolt. Thus, having expressed in previous essays my suggestion that future productions of “Lohengrin” be located in an unhistorical, mythic past, I was satisfied that the sets and costumes seen in San Francisco, were experience-enhancing, rather than detracting.

[Below: Ortrud (Petra Lang, left) schemes with her husband, Telramund (Gerd Grochowski, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Luisotti’s Wagnerian Sonic Splendor

Conductor Nicola Luisotti has proved the master of every operatic genre he has assayed so far at the San Francisco Opera. His rousing conducting of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” [see Nadja Michael a Sensation in Luisotti’s Soaring San Francisco “Salome” – October 18, 2009] made it clear that there were no cultural boundaries between Italian-born and trained Luisotti and the Romantic German repertory.

In fact, Luisotti, always in total command of the orchestra (and of the excellent work of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, directed by chorus master Ian Robertson) evoked the abundant lyrical passages of the score, while achieving brilliant sonorities in the climactic moments in which this opera abounds.

As I mention often, the War Memorial acoustics enhance the augmented orchestra playing in an open pit. By itself this immersion in “Lohengrin’s”  brilliant symphonic passages and moments of high drama with a full-voiced chorus and orchestra has dramatic impact.

But for “Lohengrin”, brass instruments were placed on the set’s upper levels for trumpet fanfares, backstage at various points, and in the rear sides of the opera house, creating moments of “surround sound” that were truly spectacular.

A reiteration of my recommendation

My recommendation, as before, is for anyone able to obtain tickets for the final performances of this run to do so. It should prove a rewarding experience.

For an account of my first performance of “Lohengrin”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960.

Postscript – Reflections on Sandor Konya and Brandon Jovanovich: In my recollections of Konya’s 1960 Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera, I stated that I had not subsequently seen a Lohengrin at the War Memorial Opera House that I liked as much as Konya in the role. Two years after that post appeared, I would revise that statement to say “until Brandon Jovanovich’s 2012 Lohengrin”.

Konya was a different artist than Jovanovich, but both are associated with tenor voices with power that resonated in the War Memorial Opera House. Both are also associated with a wide-ranging repertory. Significantly, as of this date, I have seen Jovanovich perform three of the five roles that I saw Konya sing in San Francisco – Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, and the title role of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” as well as of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

Obviously, I am interested in seeing Jovanovich perform in my other two “Konya roles” – Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” and the title role of Wagner’s “Parsifal”. We’ll see what the future brings!