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Lohengrin Evokes Memories, but Doesn't Live Up to Them

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, November 23, 2010, at 09:39AM
L.A. Opera's Lohengrin Robert Millard

Soile Isokoski (Elsa), Ben Heppner (Lohengrin) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (King Heinrich) headline the cast of the L.A. Opera’s new Lohengrin.

Lordy, lordy. A bombed-out wreckage of a church. Pale bodies strewn everywhere, blood-soaked bandages wrapping them. And what was supposed to be the magical arrival of a swan-borne Lohengrin – the knight in shining armor who would rescue the innocent Elsa from corrupt connivers -- turned out as the inauspicious appearance of a well-fed, but bummy burgher with a silverish knee-high boot. Forget the majestic music that heralds the moment. Sound and sight are not in sync here.

For this season’s venture with Wagner, the Los Angeles Opera brought us a new production of “Lohengrin.” But at its Saturday premiere many kept wondering: Where are you, Maximilian Schell, now that we need you, especially to offset pictorially the score’s passages of overbearing Germanic triumphalism? (More on that later.)

Just bear in mind that director Lydia Steier, who comes with rather high credentials, harkened back to the unenlightened days of opera as stand-and-sing ritual, replete with awkward attempts at acting but most of the time resorting to stock gestures and stage positions.

When the only action involves bodies occasionally being carried out on litters, you know you’re in trouble. And when two sluggish men (one of them rather large) try to stage an unconvincing sword/knife fight before your very eyes, you’ve learned much about unintentional comedy.

To make matters even worse (read funnier), designer Dirk Hofacker costumed the weighty king and his staff in Prussian plumed helmets and military sashes with wide belts maximizing their considerable avoir dupois. They strode slowly to stage-front, barrel-belly first, and bellowed in best wobble-style.The women, poor things, looked like frumpy housekeepers in blood-smudged aprons. (What? No feminine nobility?). Otherwise, his two-sided revolving unit set served the purpose.

Things did improve following the first disastrous act. For instance, Soile Isokoski as Elsa delivered her heart-felt lament sitting picturesquely in the frame of a high-up window. Throughout, the Swedish soprano sang with lustrous tone, musicality to spare, a free top voice and even added a deft appoggiatura here. So did Dolora Zajick, as the nefarious Ortrud, work her machine-like mezzo at full vehement volume. Ben Heppner, in the title role, seemed to be saving himself (or just trying to warm up) for the taxing last act. And although his tenor broke once, he had many vocally shining moments, carrying off the end ahead of the game.

James Conlon, who seems never to stop exulting in Wagner (and all that pertains to his post here as L.A. Opera’s music director) coaxed from the orchestra/chorus vigorous outpourings alternated with lyrical flow.

But why did everything onstage have to be prosaic, a throwback toold-fashioned storybook realism? Where could we find any nuance in Wagner’s exhaustive philosophies on good and evil? Ditto his Holy Grail mysticism and his mythic prophecies?

Because Maximilian Schell’s production from roughly 10 years ago was such a stunner (designed by the same Dirk Hofacker!!!!!) and because it dealt with the issues in ways so evocative, multi-dimensional and cinematic, the questions loom large. According to the company’s press department the older staging’s borrowed Mariinsky parts have been destroyed. But those could surely have been built back together as inexpensively as this mess – not so the cast, which included the late Gosta Winbergh, yes, that blond Adonis of a Lohengrin with a matching golden tenor.

Ah, memories.

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