Asher Fisch
Seattle Opera Chorus and Orchestra
21 August 2004
McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerGidon Saks
LohengrinAlbert Bonnema
Elsa von BrabantMarie Plette
Friedrich von TelramundGreer Grimsley
OrtrudJane Eaglen
Der Heerrufer des KönigsGordon Hawkins
Vier brabantische EdleCampbell Russell
Declan McCusker
Paul Anwyl
David Morrison
Seattle Weekly

Minority Report

The Opera’s Lohengrin: no hits, no runs, a few errors.

The biggest apparent disadvantage of reviewing for a weekly is actually a blessing in disguise. By the time a weekly reviewer sits down to write about an opening, the Big Kids at the dailies have already held forth. This means that the vast majority of readers have already gotten the official word, so we minor players can concentrate on trying to convey the nuances of what actually happened.

The official word on Seattle Opera’s Lohengrin (McCaw Hall, 206-389-7676; ends Sat., Aug. 21) is that it’s a triumph—of musicality, stagecraft, the works. And, in fact, the staging isn’t half bad: It’s the kind of evening one might experience in any of a dozen German opera houses which mount upward of a dozen such shows a season—respectable, unexceptional, just a little dull.

The physical production dates from 1994, and that show was a triumph. Ben Heppner, on the verge of international stardom, was the white knight Lohengrin, Andrea Gruber his innocent self-doomed Elsa: a couple of plus-size Wagnerian singers who, with consummate musical dramatist Herrmann Michael in the pit and director Stephen Wadsworth keeping things utterly direct and simple, managed to convince and move us even while chastely grappling on a cot center stage.

Those roles are taken this time round by Albert Bonnema and Marie Plette. Asher Fisch is conducting, and though he lacks Michael’s large-scale dramatic control, he’s a capable Wagnerian. But a Wagner con­ductor can do just so much with his orchestra; the singers have to put the show across. This is particularly true of Lohengrin. Not a heck of a lot actually happens; the drama is mostly emotional, internal, as befits a tale set in a 10th-century kingdom that still believes in trial by combat. It’s a truism but still true: Lohengrin is Wagner’s bel canto opera. The meaning is in the singing, not the stage action.

Seattle Opera’s Lohengrin just isn’t very well sung. Plette’s soprano is strong and true, but it hardly changes color all night. Bonnema can handle the notes of his part, but after a while his half-throttled sound becomes unpleasant to listen to, and he seems to have no idea of phrasing, the art of tying notes together in units of significance. Likewise Greer Grimsley as the tormented bad guy Telramund: He’s got a huge dark bass voice, and he uses it like a club, bludgeoning the music into submission.

The wild card in the cast is Jane Eaglen as Telramund’s witch-wife, Ortrud. I was very much looking forward to hearing Eaglen, a lady who eats roles like Brünnhilde and Turandot for breakfast, sing this great dramatic role. As it turns out, her most effective moments are the quiet ones, when she’s tempting Elsa to question her saintly new boyfriend’s background. In the great big moments of the role—every time she raises her volume above mezzo forte, in fact—Eaglen’s voice roughens up. You can’t help wondering if too many Ring cycles are wearing it down.

I can put up with a good deal of coarse singing if it’s in the service of the drama. I might have been able to last Saturday if stage director Wadsworth had not unaccountably sabotaged his own staging. No sooner has he set up some iconic stage picture than he sends one singer or another off on apparently aimless little trips around the stage. Everybody in the cast seems afflicted with the fidgets, usually when someone else is singing. After a while, it becomes perversely hypnotic. (There she goes. Where is she going? She doesn’t seem to know herself, because here she comes back again. Doesn’t she know how distracting she is? Doesn’t she care that when her solo comes up, someone else is going to do the same to her?)

There are moments when you can tell why somebody’s doing what they’re doing, but you devoutly wish they would stop doing it immediately. There’s a distracting bit of comic business between King Henry and his omnipresent page that blows focus during one of the opera’s most gorgeous choral interludes. During what should be a particularly solemn moment, Lohengrin simperingly waves his bride’s wreath just out of her reach, for all the world like a dog owner teasing his pet with a Frisbee. It is a fatuous, horrible, ugly moment, the more so for clearly being deliberate. If it is still there when you see the show, I suggest demanding your money back on that ground alone. Had I been paying for my ticket, I would have done so.

Roger Downey | Mon., Oct 9 2006

The Seattle News

Lively staging makes “Lohengrin” seem speedy

When you have a 4½-hour opera whose pace and intensity never flag, and audiences are heading off for intermissions saying “Boy, that act went fast,” you know two things: The production has a terrific conductor and a great stage director. This is the happy case at Seattle Opera, where the company’s revival of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” kept Saturday’s opening-night audience riveted all evening.

Asher Fisch, who led last season’s “Parsifal,” conducted an exciting performance that represented the orchestra at its very best, with brilliant brass and a propulsive energy that supercharged Wagner’s beautiful score. The famous Prelude to Act III went off like a rocket, brilliantly executed and designed to thrill.

Stephen Wadsworth’s staging was even better than in the show’s first Seattle Opera outing 10 years ago. Generally more refined and more intense, the direction has all the key characters in very clear counterpoint, with everyone listening intently to each other and reacting (often violently) to everything that is said. There’s not a lot of action in “Lohengrin,” beyond a pair of brief swordfights and the dramatic arrival of the hero; there’s a great deal of talk and many confrontations. These are hard to dramatize, but Wadsworth keeps the tension so high that you could cut it with a medieval broadsword.

Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, stark and dramatic, illuminated the effective Thomas Lynch sets.

There were a very few staging missteps, and most of these concerned the title character, sung by Dutch tenor Albert Bonnema in his company debut. Bonnema evidently was trying for a very boyish and lively portrayal, one in which there was entirely too much grinning and capering about (the processional scene, in which he clowned around with Elsa’s garland, was particularly undignified). Lohengrin need not be a bore, but he does need a certain gravitas, as the character whose unimpeachable honor and valor make him a true hero.

Ten years is a long time in the opera world, but the tenor in the 1994 production, the unsurpassed Ben Heppner, casts a long shadow. Bonnema gave a valiant account of the title role; the vocal results, however, were variable. Some phrases were beautifully sung; others were merely loud and poorly controlled.

Marie Plette, a soprano who has sung several smaller “Ring” roles with the company since 2000 (and also several leading roles in other productions), sang the role of the fatally curious Elsa, and her voice also was variable. At first, the tone sounded tight and pinched, and veered sharp on the high notes; later she sounded less restricted, though the pitch problems stayed. Plette is an appealing actress; her love for Lohengrin was both clear and moving.

Putting Plette on the stage with Jane Eaglen, as the wicked Ortrud, was a calculated risk. Utterly secure throughout the role’s ample range, Eaglen’s sumptuous voice tends to dwarf everything else. When she calls upon the gods for revenge, the whole stage seems to shudder. Her sexual hold on her husband (Telramund, powerfully sung and acted by the remarkable Greer Grimsley) was made clear in lingering and explicit embraces, and in the final scene she was an avenging fury. Wickedness has seldom looked more fun.

Gordon Hawkins was a first-rate Herald; the four nobles were John Uhlenhopp, Jon Kolbet, Gary Simpson and David Crawford.

The production’s big surprise was in a relatively small role, King Heinrich, which was illuminated by the majestic bass-baritone and compelling presence of newcomer Gidon Saks. He’s a larger-than-life actor, and his voice has tremendous focus. What a find!

By now, everyone expects the Seattle Opera Chorus to sound great, but the singers surpassed themselves this time. Kudos to chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff and to the choristers (especially the men of Act II). The eight-member Youth Chorus sang briefly but memorably.

And then there was the swan. Several of us wanted to take him home. A wonderful remote-controlled swan, this one arched his neck so sweetly when Lohengrin stroked his feathers that you could hear a bewitched “Ahhhhh” throughout McCaw Hall. Congratulations to Seattle Opera’s scenic studios (and you can read all about how the swan was built on a remote-controlled truck at www.seattleopera.org). If they ever teach this little fellow to sing, the rest of the cast will be seriously upstaged.

Nonetheless, the opera emerged as an exciting music-drama.

Melinda Bargreen | Monday, August 2, 2004


The problem with SEATTLE OPERA’S rerun of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Lohengrin (August 6) was one that often afflicts revivals: direct comparison to a much-admired opening. That 1994 production was the best-conceived and bestexecuted of Wadsworth’s series of Wagner operas in Seattle, and it featured the young Ben Heppner in his thrilling first-time assault on the demanding lead role.

Heppner’s shoes are, admittedly, enormously difficult to fill, and Albert Bonnema, the Lohengrin of the current production, faced a daunting task. To his credit, Bonnema’s attractive voice was the right weight for the part. It can also be argued that he has a more comfortable and vigorous stage presence than Heppner. Unfortunately the role’s murderous tessitura taxed Bonnema’s vocal resources, and strain and pitch problems too often afflicted his singing where brilliance and assurance were sorely needed.

Marie Plette’s performance as Elsa had strengths and weaknesses similar to those of her defending knight. She presented a more youthful, effectively vulnerable maiden in distress than her predecessor, Andrea Gruber. Still, in the more arduous stretches Plette’s singing lacked a firm core and variety of colour.

Such conviction was found on the dark side of this production. Jane Eaglen, singing her first Ortrud, and Greer Grimsley, as Telramund, complemented each other in vocal and dramatic intensity. She is not the most compelling actress, but Eaglen’s voice suited Ortrud extremely well, penetrating and secure on top as she railed against Lohengrin, dark and firm at the bottom when she seduced the hapless Telramund. What dramatic presence Eaglen lacked was balanced by Grimsley’s dynamic embodiment of Telramund’s malign fervour and crushed pride. Grimsley’s grainy tone did not always rest easy on the ear, but his abundantly detailed characterization made for a most convincing heavy.

Wadsworth’s direction was also abundantly detailed, but often distractingly so. Positive aspects had carried over from his previous production, especially the clever defining of political factions (pro Elsa versus pro Telramund) within the chorus. Yet Wadsworth’s work has become increasingly fussy of late and what was once a cleanly-focused Lohengrin has now become idiosyncratic. One particularly trying moment came while the superbly regal Gidon Saks was singing King Henry’s ‘Mein Herr und Gott’. For all Saks’s noble sound and bearing, all one could watch was Ortrud at centre stage pacing menacingly about and scowling at all who were motionless in prayer. Fortunately, beauty and spirituality were the hallmarks of Asher Fisch’s conducting. Wagner’s complex counterpoint was always made manifestly clear, the voices and instrumental solos never overwhelmed. The shifts between instrumental choirs, so important in this score, were dovetailed with seamless grace. And the orchestra played stupendously for him.

THEODORE DEACON | January 2005

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere 1647
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 474 MByte (MP3)
Some static noise and some short gaps due to tape change.
A production by Stephen Wadsworth