Musical Rewards Trump Time-Shifted “Lohengrin”

10/11/2012

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 3.11.2012 (HS)

Cast:

Lohengrin: Brandon Jovanovich
Elsa: Camilla Nylund
Ortrud: Petra Lang
Telramund: Gerd Grochowski
King Heinrich: Kristinn Sigmundsson
King’s Herald: Brian Mulligan

 

Production:

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Daniel Slater
Production Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Simon Mills
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Movement Director: Leah Hausman

 

Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Heinrich der Vogler), Brandon Jovanovich (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant). Photo by Cory Weaver.

The pit vibrated with palpable electricity as music director Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera orchestra wrung every last drop of juice from Wagner’s score for Lohengrin Saturday in the fifth of seven performances. Of a cast of beautiful voices, the stars were the ones who went beyond making the music sound lovely, and ventured into more dramatic territory. American tenor Brandon Jovanovich in the title role and Finnish soprano Camilla Nyland as Elsa looked striking together and sounded truly magnificent. They easily rank as two of the most polished and nimble voices I’ve ever heard live in these roles at the same time.

Over the years, San Francisco has put some great singers into its Lohengrin casts, dating back to 1937 when Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad sang it together here. No, I wasn’t around for that, but I did hear Peter Hofmann and Pilar Lorengar in 1982 when they were both at the top of their game in a cast that included a volcanic Leonie Rysanek as Ortrud. Her Act II curse stopped the opera cold, the only time I can recall applause interrupting Wagner at this house. Ben Heppner sang the title role twice, but he was overshadowed in 1989 by Sergei Leiferkus as an oily Telramund and in 1996 by Karita Mattila as a girlish and stunningly expressive Elsa.

This time, despite a pre-Act III announcement that he was under the weather, Jovanovich deployed a silky-smooth, deceptively powerful, pure tenor that dripped with equal parts majesty and ardor. Tall and slim, he looked every bit the heartthrob to melt an impressionable young woman. In flowing costumes and long blond locks, Nyland caressed Elsa’s music with a voice that similarity sounded lyric and sweet-toned, but had no trouble topping ensembles and pointing its way through the large orchestra. These are not typical Wagnerian voices, but they made a convincing pair and the music had a sweetness so many Wagner singers cannot achieve.

As for the villains, German mezzo soprano Petra Lang seemed to be husbanding her voice carefully as Ortrud. She managed to sing all the music accurately, but with none of the dramatic power that’s possible in this role, filled as it is with curses and human manipulation. As Telramund, the hapless husband she convinces to scheme, lie and ultimately die for her, German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski seemed underpowered in this crowd. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson invested King Heinrich with a sense of humanity to go along with his gravitas, and American baritone Brian Mulligan (who sang Nixon here this past June in Nixon in China) created a King’s Herald with more depth than one usually hears.

The production, a co-commission with the opera companies of Geneva and Houston, moves the action from medieval Brabant to an unnamed mid-20th century country (in a program note director Daniel Slater suggests Hungary in 1956 just as the Soviets are filling the political void). When Lohengrin shows up in a jerkin, a hunting horn dangling at this side, it’s like he’s come from another world. Maybe that’s the point. But I don’t think even the Soviets condoned trial by combat, a key element of the plot. Not all of it works.

Lohengrin, Act I. Photo by Corey Weaver

Slate did, however, create wonderful one-on-one moments for the characters. Lohengrin made a striking vision as the knight to the rescue, and Elsa the grateful and overwhelmed damsel. They fleshed out the moment of their meeting with telling body language in Act I. Ortrud and Telremund commiserating in Act II after their defeat before the king, and Ortrud’s insinuating manipulation of Elsa, which followed, worked effectively. And finally, in Act III, after Elsa cannot resist asking Lohengrin the one question he forbade, and Lohengrin fends off and kills Telremund, their reactions to each other are pitch-perfect. Nice touch too, as Telremund bleeds out profusely, his crimson blood dripping over the garlanded marriage-bed setting, besmirching the white purity of the setting.

Harvey Steiman

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