Wagner’s “Lohengrin” is a supernatural opera about a mysterious knight, Lohengrin, in the service of angels who protect the Holy Grail. Transported by a boat pulled by an enchanted swan, the knight intervenes in the trial of a woman accused of murdering her brother, by challenging the woman’s accuser to a trial by combat. The victorious Lohengrin marries the woman, but imposes on their marriage the condition that she never ask his name, his occupation, nor from where he came.
The opera’s lasting success is due not to any dramatic resonance of audiences with the quixotic relationship between Elsa and her knight protector, but to the incomparably beautiful melodies Wagner imbued in both his orchestral and vocal composition.
Simon O’Neill’s Lohengrin
This was the second occasion for me to report on New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill’s Lohengrin the first being the 2009 Houston Grand Opera performance [Review: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin” – Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009]. O’Neill possesses a heldentenor of inherent beauty, with vocal security high in the tenor range, and with the power to hold its own above the abundant sound of the augmented San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
Lohengrin’s third act aria In fernem land is one of Wagnerian opera’s most sublime achievements. Alden’s staging provided O’Neill with the opportunity to stand alone in center stage, with chorus and principal singers on either side, to hear his revelation of his name and the reason for his arrival. O’Neill’s beautifully sung delivery of the iconic aria was dramatically convincing.
[Below; Simon O’Neill as Lohengrin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Eleven years ago O’Neill appeared at San Francisco Opera in the role of Mao Tse-Tung. He sang opposite Brian Mulligan, this performance’s Telramund, who portrayed Richard Nixon [Review: 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera, June 8, 2012]. I have also observed O’Neill’s mastery of Otello, one of the vocally most challenging tenor roles in the Italian repertory [Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014].
O’Neill’s reputation is deservedly centered in the Wagnerian heldentenor repertory, where, in addition to Lohengrin he excels in the roles of Siegmund [Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015], Siegfried [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017] and Tristan [Review: A Praiseworthy New Mexico “Tristan und Isolde” – Santa Fe Opera, August 5, 2022].
Julie Adams’ Elsa
California soprano Julie Adams, although early in her career, displayed proficiency in the role of Elsa. Having intensively trained for it in collaboration with conductor Maestra Eun Sun Kim, Adams’ performance proved to be a milestone for a career likely to be based in the dramatic soprano fach.
Adams’ opening aria, Einsam in trüben Tagen, recounting a dream of a knight protector, was stylishly sung. She brought impactful acting as Elsa, a character whose interactions with each of the opera’s principals prove to be a source of uneasiness or distress.
[Below: Julie Adams as Elsa; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Adams is an alumna of both of San Francisco Opera’s Young Artists’ programs, the Merola program (2014) and the two succeeding years as holder of one of the prestigious Adler Fellowships. Her most important San Francisco Opera role to date was Freia in the 2018 mounting of Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” [Review: Another Zambello Ring Cycle Begins – Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2018.]
[Below: Elsa (Julie Adams, left) in her bridal gown becomes the bride of a mysterious husband, Lohengrin (Simon O’Neill, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Gideon Davey’s bridal costumes are post-Victorian white, but Alden’s staging gives homage to the pre-modern “bedding ceremony”.
[Below: the newlyweds (Julie Adams and Simon O’Neill, bottom left) prepare for their wedding night beneath a Lohengrin-themed mural; edited image, based on Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In the production’s most obvious reference to traditional productions, its scenic design includes a bridal bed underneath 19th century German painter August von Heckel’s mural The Arrival of Lohengrin in Antwerp that shows a swan pulling a boat in which the knight stands upright.
Judit Kutasi’s Ortrud
This performance was the occasion of both the American debut and role debut of Romanian mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi. She exhibited a dramatic mezzo-soprano voice with power though her vocal range.
[Judit Kutasi as Ortrud; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.
Kutasi’s Ortrud becomes a dominant presence in the opera’s second act, in which the character first enlists her husband Telramund, bruised from his defeat by Lohengrin, in her schemes.
Then, Kutasi invokes Ortrud’s sinister presence in her duet with Adams’ Elsa. She warns Elsa that her act of agreeing to marry a man who will not reveal to her crucial things about himself, suggests she will be the victim of sorcery.
[Below: Ortrud (Judit Kutasi, left) warns Elsa (Julie Adams, right) not to accede to her husband-to-be’s prohibitions against her asking his name; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francsico Opera.]
Throughout the act, Kutasi succeeded in creating a vivid portrait of a vengeful woman, and was rewarded by the audience with a sustained ovation at opera’s end.
Brian Mulligan’s Telramund
New Yorker Brian Mulligan brought his sturdy baritone to the role of the Brabantian nobleman Frederic Telramund, Elsa’s accuser and the agent of the villainies of his wife, Ortrud. Always an effective actor, Mulligan brought believability to this conflicted character.
[Below: Brian Mulligan as Frederick Telramund; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Mulligan is a familiar presence at the War Memorial Opera House, having provided stunning performances in roles as diverse as Sweeney Todd [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015 ], Usher [Review: Brian Mulligan’s Bravura Performance in Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher” – San Francisco Opera, December 13, 2015] Mandryka [Review: Dehn and Mulligan Illumine Albery’s Stylish “Arabella” – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 2018] and Gunther [Review: Theorin, Brenna Triumphant in Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung” – San Francisco Opera, June 24, 2018].
I have admired his performances in other venues as well, including Yeletsky at the Zurich Opera [Review: Robert Carsen’s Brilliantly Refocused “Pique Dame” – Zurich Opera, May 3, 2014] and John Proctor at the Glimmerglass [New York] Festival [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.]
For my interviews with Mulligan, see Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Mulligan and A Conversation with Brian Mulligan: “Crucible’s” John Proctor at Glimmerglass, His Tenth Role Debut in 16 Months
Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Heinrich, Thomas Lehman’s Herald and Other Cast Members
The only cast member to be repeating a role sung in the San Francisco Opera’s 2012 mounting of “Lohengrin”, Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was an authoritative and dignified monarch, lending his secure bass voice to Wagner’s heroic choruses.
[Below: Kristinn Sigmundsson as King Heinrich; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Like Mulligan, Sigmundsson has made San Francisco Opera appearances in a variety of roles. His eight roles sung here have included such principal roles as Baron Ochs [Review: San Francisco Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007] King Marke [Review: The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in San Francisco – October 22, 2006], Sarastro [Review: Perfect Game – Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute”, San Francisco Opera, June 13, 2012] and Vodnik [Review: “Rusalka”- Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019]. For Houston Grand Opera he was the Commendatore [Review: Outstanding Cast for “Don Giovanni” in Kasper Holten’s Vibrantly Visual Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2019], for San Diego Opera, Sparafucile [Review: Power Verdi – Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto”, March 28, 2009.].
I was impressed by his Los Angeles Opera performances in each of their trio of operas that feature the character Figaro, Sigmundsson appearing as Don Basilo [Review: Rossini Royalty Present Brilliant “Barber of Seville” – Los Angeles Opera, February 28, 2015], Don Bartolo [Review: New Faces for “Marriage of Figaro” – Los Angeles Opera, March 21, 2015] and King Louis XVI [Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015.]
[Below: Kristinn Sigmundssson (center, below, between spears) as King Heinrich; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Illinois baritone Thomas Lehman, a member of the Ensemble of the Deutsche Opera Berlin, was impressive in his San Francisco Opera debut in the opera’s sixth principal role, the Herald. If the role is expository rather than plot-moving, it is of sufficient length to show that Lehman’s voice has the power and expressiveness for core dramatic baritone roles, which is confirmed by his performance history. I look forward to seeing him perform in larger roles.
[Below: Thomas Lehman as the Herald; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Others in the cast are Pennsylvania tenor Victor Cardamone, Maryland tenor Edward Graves, South Korean bass-baritone Jongwon Han and California bass Adam Lau as the Four Nobles. New Hampshire mezzo-soprano Jesslyn Thomas, California soprano Liesl McPherrin, Oregon mezzo-soprano Whitney Steele and California mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen are the Four Pages.
Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
From the first ethereally high notes of violins and woodwinds, paced by San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Maestra Eun Sun Kim, there was little doubt that Kim’s first “Lohengrin” would be a stunning performance. As the prelude continued, various sections of the orchestra took up the lush melodies, wafting a magical flow of heavenly music.
Later, for the opera’s famous third act overture,, the augmented 71 piece San Francisco Opera Orchestra, under Kim’s baton, provided a “wall of sound”.
[Maestra Eun Sun Kim in the War Memorial Opera House; edited image, based on a Marc Oliver photograph, for the San Francisco Opera.]
The San Francisco Opera chorus, under the direction of Pennsylvania Chorus Master John Keene were in superb voice.
David Alden’s Production
Staging “Lohengrin” has become controversial, even in our present century where supernatural stories are abundant and popular. The story’s resonance with both Arthurian legend and medieval Christian mythology suggests to many that the opera must be staged with what they imagine are sets and costumes appropriate to the early tenth century specified in Wagner’s notes.
Some recent productions have sought contermporary relevance by grafting geopolitical themes into the opera’s staging. This includes Daniel Slater’s “Soviet Era Brabant” production, which I reviewed both in Houston (Review: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin” – Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009) and in San Francisco [Review: Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012 and A Second Look Review: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012]. In that production Ortrud and Telramund become Communist commissariat operatives.
Director David Alden’s insightful conceptualization of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” is a co-production performed previously by London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and at Antwerp’s Opera Vlaanderen. The production incorporates sets and costumes evocative of a millenium later than Wagner imagined, but the production’s plot lines remain faithful to Wagner’s libretto.
[Below: Director David Alden; edited image, based on a photograph from www.opera-online.com.]
Alden’s “Lohengrin” production, set in a war-wracked urban environment, was eerily evocative of the ongoing destructive invasion of Ukraine and the terrorist attack on Israel (an event occurring only days before this performance). As the lights dimmed for the performance to begin, San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock appeared on stage to alert the audience to the production’s disturbing relevance to current events.
[Below: David Alden, lower right corner facing stage right, leads a San Francisco Opera rehearsal of “Lohengrin”; edited image, based on a photograph from the San Francisco Opera website blog “Backstage with Matthew”.]
This was the first San Francisco Opera performance of a David Alden production since 2005’s “Rodelinda” [Review: David Alden Stages Handel’s “Rodelinda” – San Francisco Opera, September 25, 2005
Since 2005, I have attended and enjoyed David Alden productions in London of Handel [Review: London, Handel, and David Alden – “Radamisto” at English National Opera, October 13, 2010] and in Santa Fe of Rossini [Review: Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012], of Handel [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s “Alcina”: Beautifully Sung Enchantment – July 29, 2017], of Janacek [Review: Wilde, Racette, Lewis in Dramatically Intense, Melodic “Jenufa” – Santa Fe Opera, July 24, 2019] and of Wagner [Review: Nicholas Brownlee, Elza van den Heever Lead a Vocally Splendid Cast for Director David Alden’s New Production of “Flying Dutchman” – Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2023].
Gideon Davey’s Costumes
British costume designer Gideon Davey’s “Lohengrin” costumes do not attempt to suggest the fashion of the Low Countries in the 900s AD, but instead evoke images of 20th century soldiers and 21st century bridal finery.
[Below: the blindfolded Elsa (Julie Adams, center, against wall) is the target of a firing squad; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I liked the detail of Davey’s varied costume styles, including men in the crowd scenes whose menswear reminded me of characters in Stephen Knight’s BBC series “Peaky Blinders”.
[Photo: Men observing the wedding festivities between Lohengrin and Elsa; edited image of a Royal Opera House production photograph of the David Alden production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.]
In two previous reviews of David Alden’s productions (see the references to the English National Opera production of “Radamisto” and the Santa Fe Opera Alcina” earlier in this section), I have praised other examples of Davey’s creative costume designs.
[Below: Costume designer Gideon Davey; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Other Production Staff
The Associate to David Alden was British director Peter Relton. British choreographer Maxine Braham was movement director. New York designer Paul Steinberg created the sets and scenic design.
The lighting was originally designed by Illinois designer Adam Silverman and was recreated for the revival by British director Simon Bennison. British designer Tal Rosner created the projections. California director Dave Maier choreographed the fights.
I recommend this cast and production both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.