United States Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Nicola Luisotti (conductor). 2012 performance at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, streamed over the weekend 6-7.2.2021. (JPr)
Director – Daniel Slater
Production designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting designer – Simon Mills
Chorus director – Ian Robertson
Movement director – Leah Hausman
Fight director – Jonathan Rider
The King’s Herald – Brian Mulligan
King Heinrich der Vogler – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Friedrich von Telramund – Gerd Grochowski
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Elsa von Brabant – Camilla Nylund
Lohengrin – Brandon Jovanovich
Nobles of Brabant – Nathaniel Peake, Robert Watson, Joo Won Kang, Ryan Kuster
My virtual opera world tour has arrived in San Francisco (one of my favourite cities) for Daniel Slater’s 2012 Lohengrin which is my fourth different one as we approach the first anniversary of this current pandemic. It arrived on the USA’s West Coast via Houston in 2009 having first been staged at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in 2008. This Lohengrin was recently streamed free via the San Francisco Opera website (click here) and was a wonderful discovery. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to see it again sometime and if it does reappear, I urge you not to miss it.
Slater’s updating may not be for everybody, but I found it absorbing though what we saw was often at odds to what we heard about a mythic tale which encompasses sorcery, old gods, and new gods, as well as chivalry and romance. Slater and his frequent collaborator for sets and costumes, Robert Innes Hopkins, have created a mid-twentieth century (post-WWII?) milieu somewhere in the Soviet Bloc beyond the Iron Curtain. There are military uniforms of beige or blue, with those for high-ranking officers are braided and festooned with medals, and similar period detail for the rest of the costumes for the ordinary men and women. (I haven’t looked very far but understand Slater’s intention was to set his Lohengrin in Hungary, during the short-lived Hungarian revolution in 1956.)
The set which features most during the three acts is a vast, abandoned library of a functional design. The shelves on two levels at the back showed that its books had been mostly looted but the upper one allowed the four trumpeters to sound their fanfares when required. Tables are frequently used; Lohengrin sits at one when he arrives with – at opposite sides of the stage – Ortrud and Telramund will later be at theirs with King Henry at his during the show trial when they make their accusations against Elsa and her ‘co-conspirator’.
The two political schemers accuse Elsa of killing her brother Gottfried, the heir to the Brabant throne, but she will be defended by the enigmatic Lohengrin. He neither rides a white swan nor wears shining armour but simply pops up among the general throng. Lohengrin was first seen during the Act I prelude with the winged figure of Gottfried behind him while Elsa prayed at the front of the stage. I initially began to wonder whether all we would see would be Elsa’s dream, however as it went on, I had the feeling that we were watching ‘real’ events taking place in modern times. Elsa wears white for most of the opera and because she is starkly spotlit it gives her a mysterious angelic appearance. Elsa seems to be having an out-of-body experience while facing her inquisition before the king and as for the Grail Knight – though we don’t know that is what he is at this point – it will be love at first sight. There is nothing special about Lohengrin’s first appearance at the back of the stage and he wears a long leather coat, with a medallion round his neck on a chain (the significance of which we realise at the end of the opera) and he has a horn strapped to his side. Lohengrin is willing to fight to the death for Elsa’s honour as long as she does not ask his name or where he came from. Thanks to Slater’s subtle Personenregie there is the feeling we are in the presence of a real couple.
Act II began intriguingly with Telramund and Ortrud living outside the walls of the (library?) building – with its evidence of shelling – among the disposed living on the streets. This has been brought about by their banishment since they have failed in their bid for power and they now look like down-and-outs. Intriguingly, Telramund will be shown murdering a soldier and taking his identity. We return to the library to see what looks like the aftermath of Lohengrin’s stag party before the wedding procession gathers led by twelve bridesmaids in blush pink and there is lots of white flowers, ribbons, and confetti.
At the start of the final act Elsa seems increasingly be suffering from intense religious fervour before the fear of abandonment makes her unable to trust her new husband during their disastrous honeymoon. They were in what looked like the white-walled bridal suite of a posh hotel and whatever it was caused a certain amount of hilarity for the San Francisco audience. As Elsa’s insecurities reach breaking point Lohengrin is the personification of devotion and reason and appears genuinely hurt by the unravelling of his hopes for a happy future. That their relationship should flounder in this way was all-too-believably human. Telramund bursts in to kill Lohengrin and in contrast to their rather tame Act I swordfight, Lohengrin stabs Telramund with his own dagger and there is lots of blood. Lohengrin confesses all in front of the soldiers now armed with automatic weapons. Elsa is no longer in white but wears a blood red gown. For the final scene, the rear of the stage divides for Elsa’s lost brother to return in swan form as – with deep regret – Lohengrin leaves Brabant forever but not before releasing the young blond and uniformed Gottfried from Ortrud’s spell. A little unsteadily at first, he raises the sword he has been left and his reign begins; as Wagner’s storyline survives unscathed from Slater’s convincing and interesting reinterpretation of the medieval myth.
I had been planning to be in Dresden at this time of the year to see Petra Lang as Brünnhilde in a Ring cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann and, of course, the world’s current battle against coronavirus put paid to that. How wonderful it has been to get an opportunity to see her incomparable Ortrud once again. Lang is a remarkable singing-actor and there is a naturalness to this 2012 performance that is almost cinematic: unlike all her principal colleagues (as far as I could see) I never spotted any glances in the direction of the conductor or prompter. Slater dresses her in a formal turquoise two-piece suit and Lang’s Ortrud looks like a cross between Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in For Russia with Love and Angela Merkel. Even with little to sing in Act I she is a smirking, glowering, domineering presence. Lang comes into her own in the second act as she reveals the true extent of the manipulative Ortrud’s ruthless ambition, and she takes no prisoners. Her fierce invocation ‘Entweithe Götter!’ was a tour de force as was her gloating and demoniacal ‘Fahr’ heim!’ at the end.
Overall, the cast was a little uneven though no one really disappointed. Kristinn Sigmundsson as King Henry was authoritative yet gruff and a little shouty. Another who was forcing his voice most of the time was Gerd Grochowski’s slightly husky baritone. Nevertheless, he was dramatically credible as the short-tempered and browbeaten Telramund – the willing prey to the predatory Ortrud’s machinations – who is quickly led on a path of self-destruction. As the King’s Herald, Brian Mulligan makes you listen more attentively to his pronouncements than some.
In the leading roles Brandon Jovanovich and Camilla Nylund must be one of the handsomest couples of their generation as Lohengrin and Elsa. Nylund’s approach concentrated on radiance of voice and purity of tone which from her very first entry revealed Elsa’s vulnerability yet her blind faith that right is on her side and her saviour is out there. Therefore, Nylund’s Elsa combined tenderness and strength, which made the build up to the fatal questions in Act II simply a natural consequence of the depth of her love for Lohengrin rather than Ortrud’s brainwashing.
Brandon Jovanovich’s first Lohengrin stood up well to some formidable competition. His singing was musical, solid, nuanced, with an attractive range of colours and little more can be expected from Wagner tenors these days. Given further opportunities to sing the role he will make a little more of some of the words and phrases. To his credit he acted convincingly and ‘In fernem Land’ had tonal refinement and was like an internal monologue, whilst Jovanovich’s ‘Mein lieber Schwan’ at the end was a very tender farewell.
This was Nicola Luisotti’s first Wagner conducting assignment and since he is preeminent in Italian opera this only proved to benefit his Lohengrin, the most Italianate of Wagner’s operas. Fully supported by his strong cast and impeccable chorus Luisotti’s interpretation had a strong architectural view of the score and there was – when appropriate – spirituality, rapt intensity, or surging emotion. I wondered during the suitably ethereal, yet very slow, overture how the rest of the opera would unfold but Luisotti seemed to get the pacing of all the crucial scenes exactly right, neither too hurried nor lingered over too much.