SF Opera and conductor Eun Sun Kim deliver a riveting Lohengrin

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 15.10.2023. (HS)

Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) and Julia Adams (Elsa) after the wedding © Corey Weaver/SFO

Director – David Alden
Sets – Paul Steinberg
Costumes – Gideon Davey
Original Lighting – Adam Silverman
Revival Lighting – Simon Bennison
Projection – Tal Rosner
Choreographer – Maxine Braham
Fight director – Dave Maier
Chorus director – John Keene

Lohengrin -Simon O’Neill
Elsa – Julie Adams
Ortrud – Judit Kutasi
Telramund – Brian Mulligan
King Heinrich – Kristinn Sigmundsson
The King’s Herald – Thomas Lehman

There was plenty to appreciate in San Francisco Opera’s first go at Wagner’s Lohengrin in twelve years. The singing had its thrills from the whole cast, including sensational outbursts and other contributions from the chorus. The thought-provoking production, first seen at Royal Opera Covent Garden in 2018, made much more out of the story than a mere fairy tale, and gave the characters – and us – plenty to chew on.

But the glory of Sunday afternoon’s first performance of six was music director Eun Sun Kim’s fresh attempt at this score, part of her initiative to conduct one opera by Wagner and one by Verdi every season. As good as her Il trovatore that opened the season was (review here), this reached even more miraculous heights. Every note, it seemed, fell into place naturally, the pace and orchestral phrasing matching Wagner’s intentions at every turn, from the delicacy of the shimmering high violins in the first measures of the prelude to the mighty climaxes at the close of the first two acts.

Each moment seemed to have its own attributes, not just louder or softer but with personality suitable to what was happening, yet completely within the flow of the score. Credit is also due to the orchestra, which got well-deserved, roaring ovations for their bows before Acts II and III.

Director David Alden’s controversial production grabs on to an aspect of the opera not usually brought out: the title character arrives to save Elsa at a time when the German King Heinrich arrives to rouse the men of Brabant to go to war to defend the realm from enemies.

The sets and costumes suggest the twentieth century. A demoralized civilization survives in ruins, seeking a leader to give them hope. It is not the king, who relies on rifle-toting troops to keep the people in line. And it is not Telramund, the knight who lies about Elsa and loses in combat with Lohengrin to decide her innocence. The people and the king turn to Lohengrin, a heroic and somewhat magical figure who Elsa has seen in a dream and who arrives on a swan – here portrayed in coruscating shadow projections of wings over the scene. It is a particularly appropriate effect which suggests that Lohengrin’s arrival may have its repercussions for Brabant. In this production, despite Lohengrin refusing the title of Duke of Brabant, a swan symbol that the king appropriates appears on edifices and banners, reminiscent of fascist regimes.

(l-r) Brian Muilligan (Telremund), Kristin Sigmundsson (King Heinrich) and Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) © Corey Weaver/SFO

Lohengrin does protect Elsa, however, and agrees to join Brabant in its upcoming battle. New Zealander Simon O’Neill in the title role and Julie Adams as Elsa (each a product, at different times, of San Francisco Opera’s training programs) delivered vocally and dramatically. O’Neill’s trumpet-like tenor could be piercing at times, but he spun out his character’s long phrases with indefatigable energy. Adams summoned gorgeous tone and shaded her creamy soprano for dramatic and emotional character with sensitivity. She also looked great in the fluffiest of bridal gowns, which descended slowly from the flies and somehow suggested the texture of swan feathers. Their scene in the bridal chamber unfolded with gradually increasing tension, from the afterglow of their wedding to the moment when she finally asks him his name, with singing to match this arc and Kim’s conjuring of nimble music from the orchestra.

The voice of the day, though, belonged to Brian Mulligan. His focused, resonant baritone perfectly conveyed Telramund’s nastiness and his cowering to Judit Kutasi’s formidable Ortrud, his witch of a wife who wants to return Brabant to Pagan ideals. The Romanian mezzo-soprano, making her U.S. debut, had the heftiest voice in the cast, and she used it to threaten everyone. She also demonstrated how she could manage Telramund with sex, in the sharply-delineated scene where she hatches their plan to unmask (and kill) Lohengrin by sowing doubt in Elsa’s faith in him.

Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, who has sung roles from Ochs to Daland at this company, did well as an overburdened King Heinrich. American baritone Thomas Lehman as the King’s Herald demonstrated why he is singing major roles at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

For its part, the chorus sang the big moments lustily and contributed to the acting with winning details in movement and crowd scenes.

Before the start, General Director Matthew Shilvock stepped from behind the curtain to advise the audience that some might find the visuals depicting fascism disturbing, while also making the point that the production’s focus on how wartime affects all of us is timely given the Israel-Gaza confrontation and Ukraine’s war against an invader. As a ‘reflection’ in the press notes describes it, the opera’s ‘backdrop of a society undergoing a gradual militarization … gradually adopts the forms and symbols of a fascistic society’. Shilvock’s reference to the conflict in the Middle East carries reflections of the religious hostilities between Ortrud’s cabal and the majority in Brabant.

Shilvock noted, to applause, that despite all this the opera ends on a note of hope. Indeed, in this staging, Elsa does not die at the end but embraces the now-returned child-duke Gottfried, who lifts Lohengrin’s sword timed with the final chord.

Harvey Steiman

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