Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera House Chorus and Orchestra
4 October 1996
Civic Auditorium San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerJan-Hendrik Rootering
LohengrinBen Heppner
Elsa von BrabantKarita Mattila
Friedrich von TelramundTom Fox
OrtrudElizabeth Connell
Der Heerrufer des KönigsDavid Okerlund
Vier brabantische EdleBenoît Boutet
Stuart Skelton
John Autry
John Relyea
sfgate.com (I)

A `Lohengrin’ for Ears Only

Magnificent music undermined by indifferent staging

The San Francisco Opera’s new production of “Lohengrin” might have been designed as an experiment to assess the relative importance of music and drama in opera. What do you get, it asks, if you mount a musically first-rate rendition of Wagner but neglect to stage it with even minimal regard for theatrical effectiveness?

Well, what you get — at least during Saturday’s opening performance at the Civic Auditorium — is an exercise in frustration. The musical rewards kept coming all night long, from a superb cast, from the chorus and from the orchestra.

But to appreciate them fully, you had to ignore the hapless shilly-shallying that was filling up the stage. For patrons who believe that opera is about singing first and last, this may be a viable strategy; for the rest of us, it took some doing.


That the central emblem of this opera — the mysterious swan that bears Lohengrin to Brabant and then away again — had utterly vanished from director Laurie Feldman’s effort was, by any reckoning, a howler. Worse yet, that wasn’t even the most egregious of the production’s missteps.

Fortunately, though, the half-full part of the glass was resplendently so. Music director Donald Runnicles, back in top Wagnerian form after his shaky “Walkure” of last season, led a magnificent account of the score — muscular, flexible, stately but never languid.

He gauged the music’s flow perfectly, letting energy accumulate during lengthy stretches and then discharging it in an electrifying climax. And Runnicles seems to have largely conquered the acoustical difficulties of the Civic, at least as far as the orchestra is concerned. The orchestral introduction to Act 3 rang out clearly and without stridency, even when doubly muffled by a scrim and the huge gauzy canopy of Lohengrin and Elsa’s bridal chamber.


The cast, led by the great tenor Ben Heppner in the title role, was no less rewarding. It was as a last-minute substitute Lohengrin that Heppner made his company debut in 1989; since then, he has solidified his standing as today’s foremost Wagner tenor.

Saturday’s performance was another reminder of why. The role now lies so effortlessly within Heppner’s grasp, and emerges with such unforced intimacy, that there were long stretches when it was easy to forget that this is arduous music to sing.

Lohengrin’s nobility made itself felt in the role’s most overtly heroic passages, including the climactic battle of Act 1 and the accusatory rhetoric of Act 3. But the real glory of Heppner’s artistry came in the more lyrical moments — the farewell to the (sadly nonexistent) swan, and especially the Act 3 duet with Elsa, in which tender wedding-night endearments gradually gave way to apprehension and then anguish as Elsa probed the forbidden question of his identity. This was where Heppner’s sumptuous tone and fluent phrasing rose to its greatest triumph.

He was matched by soprano Karita Mat- tila, singing her first Elsa, who gave her strongest performance to date. Mattila has sung in San Francisco before, most recently as Eva in the 1993 “Meistersinger,” but this was the first time I have heard her round out her pretty tone with power and artistic presence.

The vague otherworldliness of her Act 1 dream monologue combined floating phrases with deeply rooted musical values to produce a chilling effect, and the Act 3 duet with Lohengrin was remarkable both for its vocal flair and for the sense of fearful relentlessness that she brought to Elsa’s questioning.

Tom Fox was a fearsome Telra- mund, a little unsteady at the beginning but riveting in his Act 2 denunciation of Lohengrin. Elizabeth Connell’s Ortrud conveyed the very depths of malevolence in vocal terms.

As King Heinrich, Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s woolly bass struggled to sound clearly in Act 1, but by Act 3 he had regained his regal bearing. Adler Fellow David Okerlund made an impressively stentorian Herald, and the Opera Chorus sang with well-disciplined skill.

Perhaps all this should have been enough. But “Lohengrin” is a work of musical theater, and Feldman’s staging was almost as untenable as her disastrous 1994 production of Rossini’s “Otello.”

The lack of a swan was bad enough; the lack of purpose was even more dismaying. From one scene to the next, Feldman seemed content to move the players aimlessly about the stage, from one listless encounter to another.

There was one moment of real magic. At the end of Act 2, when Elsa is going off to marry Lohengrin, she stops to look back at Ortrud as the orchestra, with one more statement of the “Forbidden Question” motif, reminds us of the poisonous doubt that the latter has planted in her mind. Feldman places the two of them as far apart as possible, yet the link forged by Elsa’s backward glance — underscored by Thomas J. Munn’s unobtrusively virtuosic lighting — is arresting.

Zack Brown’s set, too, is spare but evocative. At the back is a large bejeweled circle meant to suggest an early Celtic communion plate; the upper semicircle frames the orchestra, and Lohengrin enters through the lower half.

Beyond that, though, there is mostly nonsense. The Act 2 sunrise that brings the wedding day is greeted with enough slack-jawed amazement to suggest a total solar eclipse. When Lohengrin at last reveals his name, the Brabantian nobles gather on the ground like kindergartners at story time. The Act 2 bridal procession is an exercise in listlessness; the duet in the bridal chamber looks like an adolescent slumber party.

Stage direction this weak would be disappointing under any circumstances; in the Civic, it’s a tragedy. As the company keeps reminding us, one compensation for the hall’s acoustic problems is the chance for dramatically vital opera. But that’s not going to happen until the San Francisco Opera adds some directors of vision and ability to its roster.

JOSHUA KOSMAN | Monday, September 30, 1996

sfgate.com (II)

“Lohengrin’ misses boat

WITH ITS NEW production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” the San Francisco Opera Saturday evening endeavored anew to convert the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium into an acceptable temporary home. Notwithstanding soprano Karita Mattila’s rapturous Elsa, the company’s Herculean efforts to lodge the lyric muse in a barn have again proved clumsy and unevocative. This simply isn’t working. No amount of sonic enhancement (read: amplification) and stage-filling crowd scenes have been capable of providing the platform on which voice and orchestra fuse into that miracle we call opera. And in “Lohengrin” (the company’s first attempt at this echt Romantic work since 1989), the frailty of what must be called the “Civic concept” becomes more apparent every time the conductor gives the downbeat.

When the conductor is the S.F. Opera’s Music Director Donald Runnicles striving valiantly to impose a lyrical fervor on the score, the frustration is palpable. With the orchestra positioned on a balcony behind the stage and communication between podium and singers effected through small video monitors, the shaping of the musical line and the necessary attention to dynamics remain a haphazard phenomenon.

Sure, the electronics experts fiddled all evening. And one heard plenty of volume from Runnicles and his 70 players. Yet, the results were curiously weightless; and Wagner without sonic weight is like Donizetti without high notes.

Granted, one noticed a few improvements Saturday since the opening night “Prince Igor” on Sept. 6. Singers thankfully no longer turn upstage to deliver their parts. And the company has adjusted the stage lighting so that supertitles are now legible (watching the screens attentively, however, is a sure prescription for a crick in the neck). So, the Opera, in a sense, can deal with the space, without really subduing it.

“Lohengrin,” however, seems an odd choice for the Civic. Despite the opera’s opportunity for pageantry and spectacle, the work’s most revealing moments come with the intimate exchanges – Telramund and Ortrud quarrelling in Act II, Ortrud’s baiting of the innocent Elsa and the bridal chamber duet in Act III.

However, Laurie Feldman, the director whose irrelevancies almost sank Rossini’s “Otello” two years ago, has staged this “Lohengrin” for devotees of tennis tournaments. She exploits to the maximum Zack Brown’s two-level set and matching side staircases, with the pagan Ortrud hurling imprecations at Elsa through vast expanses of space. And virtually every orchestral interlude inspires multitudes of choristers and supers, 169 in all, promenading or tramping across the stage.

Worse still, this “Lohengrin” is resolutely unmagical. In this production, the shining knight must arrive in 10th century Antwerp on Trans-Brabantian Airlines; Feldman hasn’t even given us a suggestion of a swan boat. Thus, the retransformation of Elsa’s bewitched brother, Gottfried, at the end, lacks mythic resonance. Casting this silent role as a boy, rather than as an adolescent defuses the moment of its erotic charge.

My copy of the score says that Elsa expires in the closing pages. Feldman must own another edition; on Saturday, Mattila stood around beaming, like the Princess of Wales at an investiture. These are not petty details. They are part of the web of symbols on which the opera depends; can Feldman be so oblivious to essentials?

Brown has contributed serviceable decor. Working in a muted color scheme (Ortrud must be evil; she has red hair), he has backed the performance space with an enormous plate. But tacky dyed ostrich plumes must serve for the riverbank. And, in Peter J. Hall’s costuming, one wondered why some of the soldiers sported enormous tea strainers on their heads. Mattila might have been a fine Elsa under ideal circumstances. Given that the Finnish artist was tackling the part for the first time and that she was operating within a dra

maturgical vacuum, her contribution was nothing short of inspiring. Mattila glowed throughout the 4-1/4-hour production. She brought to the two arias a dreamy Romanticism, a lovely lyric sound and profound textual understanding. Mattila conveys the self-satisfaction underlying Elsa’s soulful purity; when Ortrud comments on “this proud creature,” she’s right on the mark.

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is acknowledged as one of the finest Lohengrins of his generation (he filled in one performance for the ailing Paul Frey in 1989). He pours out a steady stream of golden tone and invests the bridal chamber scene with a poetic tenderness. But Saturday caught Heppner a bit off form. Throaty bobbles smudged both “Nun sei bedankt” in Act I and the great moments in the Act III duet.

Casting Elizabeth Connell as Ortrud (despite her experience in the part at the Bayreuth Festival) proved wishful thinking. The British soprano boasts the wrong vocal timbre for the part. And her pitch goes completely awry as the role ascends the scale (the finale was a mess). In spite of welcome ironic inflections, this Ortrud never dominates. If, as rumor has it, there’s an “Elektra” with Connell in our future, the company must be desperate.

Baritone Tom Fox virtually twisted his larynx out of shape as Ortrud’s husband and partner in crime, Telramund. Resembling a cross between a pigtailed hippie and a creature whose innards had been sucked out by aliens, this reliable American artist conferred little of the necessary nobility on the character.

German bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering brought the right kind of weight and timbre to King Heinrich. But the pitch slipped and slithered, and the performer did not supply the necessary authority for the “Mein Herr und Gott” ensemble. Baritone David Okerlund evinced more than promise as the herald; this part served as launching pad for major baritones of the past (Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil) and this 1996 Adler Fellow may likely follow in their paths.

Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus achieved moments of certifiable magnificence despite the handicaps of working in the Civic. The supplementary brass made heavy weather of their assignment, blatting and blooping through the evening.

Runnicles found the airiness of string sound in the Prelude and coaxed his winds into some pungent responses. With all the expansiveness, he sustained a consistent dramatic pulse. I can’t wait to hear him lead “Lohengrin” in a setting worthy of his gifts.

Allan Ulrich | Monday, September 30, 1996

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 459 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Laurie Feldman