Entertainment » Theatre

San Francisco Opera’s ’Lohengrin’ Opens

by Philip Campbell
Wednesday Oct 31, 2012
Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Heinrich der Vogler), Brandon Jovanovich (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant) in San Francisco Opera’s "Lohengrin." (Photo: Cory Weaver)
Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Heinrich der Vogler), Brandon Jovanovich (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant) in San Francisco Opera’s "Lohengrin." (Photo: Cory Weaver)  

The San Francisco Opera opened a new-to-San Francisco production of Richard Wagner's sprawling Romantic opera "Lohengrin" last week to cheers and general audience approval for an appealing cast well-suited to a somewhat daring concept from an intelligent director.

Daniel Slater's sophisticated and fitfully exciting update of a murky medieval legend (so Wagnerian) may ultimately appeal less to the heart than to the mind, but at least it gets us thinking about the meaning behind the music. Moving the story to an unspecified European state in the Soviet era removes much of the old and tired symbolism of vintage productions, but Slater often replaces it with some new and confusing symbolism of his own. It may not be a perfect vision, but it is always a deeply considered one, and the results are fresh and modern.

"Lohengrin" was Wagner's last real opera in the traditional sense before he moved into the revolutionary "music drama" stage of his turbulent career. Slater's production was reportedly booed by the Wagnerian purists in Geneva when it was first performed there. A second mounting in Houston in 2009 was well-received and deemed safe enough for travel to the SFO. We do have our own Wagner conservatives here, but there was little evidence of their disapproval on opening night. Most of the intermission buzz centered, rightfully, on the singers.

As with any production of Wagner from any period, it is the musical performance that makes the experience, and this latest incarnation, the 12th at SFO since 1931, is solid enough to make us want to hear it again. There have been starrier casts and conductors before (OMG, Melchior and Flagstad with Reiner, in 1937), but current music director Nicola Luisotti, conducting the first Wagner opera of his own career, has marshaled the forces onstage (and dispersed throughout the auditorium) for a mightily impressive musical event.

In his role debut as the titular knight, tenor Brandon Jovanovich certainly looks like the kind of guy who might arrive on a swan to save a damsel in distress. Following on his tremendous splash as Siegmund in the SFO's most recent Die Walkure, the physically imposing and vocally gifted singer is more than ready for a full evening of Wagnerian ordeal. When he wiped his brow with a big "Phew" during his curtain call, the audience only raved more for his big night as the star. Jovanovich's voice, even with the slightest trace of vibrato in the softest passages, is strong and pure enough to triumph in the part. His acting is mostly generalized (with occasional flashes of real passion), and his carriage seems even more modern than the period of the staging, but this Lohengrin is all man, and definitely of the earth.

The character is often played as an emotionally uninvolved stranger from another spiritual plane. Jovanovich and Slater see him as a young man hot to get the girl. Forget all that immortality stuff; he's in love. And the lady of his affections is Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as Elsa von Brabant. Looking lovely and chaste in production designer Robert Innes Hopkins' flattering costumes, Nylund makes the most of her character's anguish and confusion. Elsa can be an irritating dunce, too easily led astray by devious advisors. Nylund comes across as a sweet and innocent girl genuinely heartbroken by the malevolent forces of her fate. Her experience in the part gives her added poise and a sense of nobility. There is a pleasing purity about her strong and clear tone that makes her Elsa especially sympathetic.

German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski returns to the stage of the SFO, after his successes in the Ring cycle and Janacek's The Makropulos Case, as a surprisingly understandable bad guy, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich appears to be a really mean drunk at the mercy of a shrewish Ortrud. His wife is more Lady Macbeth than witch, however, and he goes to his own fate with an air of de-energized hypnotization.

Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang is another Wagnerian veteran, and she inhabits the evil Ortrud with venomous tone and conviction. The nasty old pagan aspects of the character are replaced by the director with a more matronly spitefulness that slightly diminishes her frightfulness. When she rushes in at the last moment to add a little more salt to Elsa's wounds, it is almost laughable. Oh dear, not that tired old dame again!

As King Heinrich, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson returns to the SFO after previously singing the role in Munich, Berlin and Madrid. He looks right for the part and he is a good actor, but his voice was weak at the bottom on opening night, and it proved the only negative vocal distraction of the night.

Moving believably as a crowd throughout the functionalist, Soviet-style (albeit seedy and rundown) headquarters, the SFO Chorus under Ian Robertson sounded strong and often thrilling. The various horn players stationed throughout the theatre also added a visceral punch to the proceedings. Unfortunately, Luisotti opted for a very measured approach that was ponderous at times, and he built to the conclusion of each act with an overly careful control, robbing them of their usual power. The orchestra followed the conductor faithfully, and there were many moments of great beauty and detail. As Luisotti relaxes a bit throughout the run, we suspect his interpretation will burn with more intensity.

When the swan comes to the stage at the conclusion, morphed into Elsa's missing brother - sorry for the spoiler, but that's what got Lohengrin involved in the first place - Slater employs a tow-headed blonde boy in a brown uniform. Huh? I thought we were supposed to be in the European Soviet mid-50s. Who knows, maybe that's why they booed the production in Geneva? Here in SF, the audience merely cooed at what a beautiful kid he was. That's Wagner for you. Like all genius writers, no matter how controversial, he can stand a lot of interpretations.

"Lohengrin" plays the War Memorial Opera House through Nov. 9. www.sfopera.com

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