Charles Mackerras
San Francisco Opera House Chorus and Orchestra
26 November 1989
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerSiegfried Vogel
LohengrinBen Heppner
Elsa von BrabantMariAnne Häggander
Friedrich von TelramundSergei Leiferkus
OrtrudEva Randová
Der Heerrufer des KönigsTheodore Baerg
Vier brabantische EdleKristopher Irmiter
LeRoy Villanueva
Hong-Shen Li
Craig Estep
Los Angeles Times

Understudy Sings in S.F. ‘Lohengrin’ It could have been one of those fabulous Cinderella scenarios–a press agent’s dream. Famous soprano takes ill. Opera company takes chance on inexperienced understudy. The show goes on. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. That’s the way it was Friday night at the San Francisco Opera. Alas, the show went on shakily. No star was born.

The daunting vehicle happened to be “Lohengrin.” MariAnne Haggander, a celebrated Wagnerian from Bayreuth and the Met, was to have portrayed the innocent but inquisitive heroine, but a severe case of tracheitis intervened. Presumably, there was no time to fly in an ersatz Elsa with credentials worthy of an $86 top ticket.

Enter Meredith Mizell.

Meredith Mizell?

The management, rather cavalier about such matters, didn’t deem it worthwhile to tell the audience much about her. An administrative assistant announced her unscheduled appearance in a brief pre-curtain speech. Her name wasn’t even posted in the lobby, and no slip in the program magazine offered a biographical sketch.

That could be because her biography is rather sketchy. She served, the press was told, as the official “cover” for the role. That means she attended rehearsals and was standing by.

Her actual house debut, a decidedly modest assignment involving a little off-stage ensemble work in “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” had been planned for the following week. Her academic background involves non-Wagnerian work at the School of the Ozarks, the University of Illinois and Oklahoma City University. She has also appeared–we don’t know in what–with the Central City and Des Moines Metro operas.

A query to a company representative regarding her age brought back the rather vague information that she is “in her 30s.” That isn’t exactly early for the launching of a major operatic career. Still, it is never too late if one really is a rare Wagnerian bird.

Mizell isn’t. On the basis of this strenuous and admittedly difficult encounter, one would have to guess that she is a plump and pleasing person with a potentially pretty voice under imperfect control. When she sings gently, the tone is blandly appealing. When she applies pressure, it tightens and becomes unsteady.

She seemed calm. She knew the part–a particularly long and arduous part–and she went through the prescribed motions with conscientious if rather blank professionalism. She deserves obvious credit for saving the performance. One has heard worse.

One has a right to expect better in a great international house, however, even under emergency conditions. Ultimately, it is a matter of planning.

Otherwise, this “Lohengrin” revival sounded better than it looked. Wolfgang Weber’s staging scheme, first seen here in 1978, remains one of the clumsier legacies of the Adler regime. It offers little but a series of statuesque rituals framed by a silly dream-within-a-play pretense that confuses Elsa’s King Heinrich with Wagner’s King Ludwig. Beni Montresor’s flimsy-gauzy-glitzy decors still suggest cheap fairy-tale illustrations that trivialize the monumental music, and his ubiquitous scrims offer constant alienation.

The cast tended toward the lyrical. Given Charles Mackerras’ light, swift and urgent approach to the score–no majestic expansion for him!–that probably was an advantage.

Paul Frey, the Canadian Swan Knight from Bayreuth, looked extraordinarily lean and handsome, if wimpish. He sang very sweetly, sometimes exquisitely, and rose boldly if not always forcefully to the heroic climaxes.

Sergei Leiferkus, the novice Telramund from the Kirov Opera, made the arch-villain a dignified, nearly sympathetic force and actually solved most of the high-tessitura hectoring problems with bel-canto fervor. One longs for his return in a more flattering assignment.

Eva Randova snarled and screamed very persuasively, nearly desperately, as nasty Ortrud. Still, she could not make the listener forget that the role really demands a bigger, higher voice.

Siegfried Vogel of East Berlin introduced a lightweight, monochromatic King. Theodore Baerg, the Canadian baritone heard as Figaro last year in Costa Mesa, complemented the monarch as a lightweight, monochromatic Herald.

The all-important chorus, trained by Ian Robertson, sang splendidly. Robertson, incidentally, is scheduled to conduct the final performance on Dec. 8.

The Friday night audience, which did not quite fill the house, registered general enthusiasm. Wagner always triumphs, no matter what.

A highly unscientific sampling of intermission chatter in the lobbies, however, disclosed two recurring, leitmotivic questions:

1–“What was the name of that substitute soprano?”

2–“When do they play the wedding march?”

MARTIN BERNHEIMER | November 20, 1989

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 195 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Wolfgang Weber