After the highly controversial Ring Cycle by director/designer Achim Freyer, a production that nearly made the company go bankrupt and was only saved by a “loan” from the City of Los Angeles, the last thing Artistic Director Placido Domingo needed was another even more controversial Wagner opera. But Lohengrin is staged by Freyer’s assistant Lydia Steier (though to be fair Ms. Steier has had a fairly distinguished career in Germany).
I was not really familiar with the opera but I knew something was way wrong. Instead of a nice fantasy about the Holy Grail, director Steier sets the opera just after World War I inside a bombed out church that was being used as an infirmary. With the characters vying to run the country, I couldn’t but wonder why, when everything looked ruined and devastation lay everywhere. I was also very uneasy during the musical section that glorified German military might. I think this was an attempt to be relevant but instead it just confused the issue.
Photo: LA Opera
The biggest problem was in the characterization of the hero Lohengrin, son of King Parsifal, who is the keeper of the Holy Grail. Instead of a hero we get the once glorious Ben Heppner, looking old and pudgy in a dirty tee shirt and golden prosthetic leg. (During the first musical prelude we saw the shadow of a man getting his leg cut off). Lohengrin is a hero supposed to arrive on a swan, but no swan here. Swans have been absent ever since the infamous incident with Leo Slezak who missed getting back on the swan and proclaimed, “What time’s the next swan.” The problem with the prosthetic leg is that it is a major plot point that if just the tip of Lohengrin’s finger were cut off he would lose his power. Ms. Steier, he is missing and entire leg!
All right, the production was a disaster, but the musical side of things wasn’t half bad. Two noted Wagnerian singers, Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Heinrich) and Soile Isokoski, made their company debuts. Both were fine and Isokoski’s Elsa grew on me. Dolora Zajick was a splendid Ortrud despite her campy costume. James Johnson was a fierce Telramund.
LA Opera has been trying to get Ben Heppner here for a long time but it is unfortunate it took so long because his singing alternated between sweet lyricism and braying off-key notes. The chorus was first-rate and so was the orchestra under Maestro Conlon’s conducting. I have never heard a better “Wedding March,” which began Act Three, although it didn’t really suit this abysmal production.
Lohengrin has five more performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where it is in rep with Verdi’s Rigoletto. If you can get over the production, Lohengrin is Wagner’s most lyrical opera and is worth the listening.