Saturday, October 27, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Wagner’s Lohengrin

October 24, 2012

Under director Daniel Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins, Lohengrin takes flight from its original tenth century to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a shift that provides apt political parallels and the increased relevancy of a more contemporary time-stamp. The central setting is a cavernous abandoned library; the pivotal wedding-night scene takes place in a postage-stamp bedroom resembling a diorama or a television screen.

The primary vocal delight is tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who played Siegmunde in SFO’s 2011 Ring Cycle. Jovanovich is a wonder, delivering the lyricism and phrasing of a Verdian tenor without losing the sheer force of a heldentenor. His instrument is almost a magic trick, and a fitting attribute for a mysterious, god-like hero (delivered by a swan to save an unstable country). His reading of Lohengrin’s confession, “In fernem Land,” is filled with indescribably gorgeous passages of legato.

Playing Lohengrin’s love interest, Elsa, soprano Camilla Nylund proves an able match – particularly in the Act 2 Breeze Song – but her acting doesn’t come across. When Ortrud hurls Elsa’s wedding bouquet to the ground, she shows barely any reaction at all.

Quite the opposite is Petra Lang’s portrayal of Ortrud, a whirling dervish of evil intent. Her sustained end-notes go on forever, musical evidence of of Ortrud’s obsessiveness. Her husband and co-villain, Friedrich, is played by bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski with quirky charisma and a chilling lower range. His performance of Friedrich’s list of grievances, “Durch dich musst’ ich verlieren,” is resoundingly creepy. Together they make a pair worthy of the Macbeths or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and offered a welcome antidote to the glacial pace of Wagner’s storytelling.

Sometimes I fear for Nicola Luisotti’s well-being, he conducts so energetically, but he certainly draws the most from his orchestra. The tastiest offerings were the elegantly shifting strings of the prelude, the celebrated Act 3 introduction and the sheer force of the opera’s many triple-forte blasts, particularly in the horns (the brass also shone in Elsa’s account of her dream-knight, “Einsam in trüben Tagen”). A cozier delight came from the four onstage herald trumpets – David Burkhart, Scott Macomber, John Freeman and Jeffrey Lewandowski – who introduced the many royal pronouncements, and also the six trumpets that played from the second-tier organ bays.
The men’s chorus was superb, especially in the unaccompanied passages. It’s a shame that Wagner later rejected choruses, which he abjured as a part of the grand opera tradition.

A note of intrigue came from the child role of Gottfried, which had to be divided between Dylan Zorn (Act 1) and Ivan Kiryakin (Act 3) due to child labor laws forbidding more than three hours’ work on a school night.The production appeared previously at the Houston Grand Opera and Grand Thèatre de Genève.

Through November 9 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340,, 415/864-3330.

Images: Gerd Grochowski (Friedrich von Telramund) and Brandon Jovanovich (Lohengrin). Petra Lang (Ortrud) and Gerd Grochowski (Friedrich von Telramund). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel Operaville, available at

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