Nicola Luisotti
San Francisco Opera House Chorus and Orchestra
October or November 2012
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerKristinn Sigmundsson
LohengrinBrandon Jovanovich
Elsa von BrabantCamilla Nylund
Friedrich von TelramundGerd Grochowski
OrtrudPetra Lang
Der Heerrufer des KönigsBrian Mulligan
Vier brabantische EdleNathaniel Peake
Robert Watson
Joon Won Kang
Ryan Kuster
Stage directorDaniel Slater
Set designerGeorge Innes Hopkins
TV directorFrank Zamacona

Lohengrin returns to San Francisco in effective new production

Wagner’s Lohengrin was the last work the master completed before settling into a mid-career six-year slump. During this compositional hiatus, he wrote the poems for his Ring operas and ruminated in print on various topics, musical and otherwise, but work on the music dramas essentially ceased. What came later – The Ring, Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, and Parsifal – was worth the wait, but the earlier Lohengrin should not, consequently, be viewed as just an early work predating Wagner’s artistic maturity; it is a sparklingly full example of the Wagnerian art. San Francisco Opera’s new production presented Lohengrin with rich expressiveness and a vivid, contemporary setting, reminding us all of the work’s timeless and transcendent qualities.

So often presented as a medieval fantasy, in the hands of director Daniel Slater and production designer George Innes Hopkins, this Lohengrin, a co-production already seen in Houston and Geneva, eschewed pageantry for realism, setting it in an unnamed post-war Eastern European locale. With period-detail evident in the costumes and sets, Hopkins’ designs clearly supported Slater’s vision for a more historic than mythic Lohengrin. Where the production really scored, however, was with its, for me, novel interpretation of the title role as a real man, rather than the other-worldly, perfect entity whose marriage to an earth-bound woman is supposed to shock us when it ends badly. Here, Lohengrin does not enter on a swan, radiantly arrayed in gleaming white armor; he emerges from seemingly nowhere, a lonely wanderer-type, noble in his lack of ostentatious display. Further, this Grail Knight actually looked smitten with his chosen mate and ready to sacrifice everything for love, as long as she agreed to not ask his name that is. Under these circumstances, Elsa’s inability to trust her partner during their disastrous honeymoon was tragic in a human, believable way.

The Act I action, wherein Elsa is accused of fratricide by two political schemers only to be defended by the mysterious Lohengrin, takes place within a palatial library. Act II opens with Telramund and Otrud, disgraced by their failed bid for power, living outside the building’s walls amid street people. The sets in either case seemed to frame the action within a playable space appropriate to the scale of the drama. Where Slater and Hopkins’ production was most effective, however, was during the intimate-to-the point-of-claustrophobic bridal chamber scene in Act III. It seemed like the walls of the small, brightly-lit, white room were closing in on Elsa and Lohengrin as their bond disintegrated under the weight of distrust. Elsa, mad with doubt about her husband’s identity is raving while Lohengrin, all love and reason, tries to dissuade her from asking the question that will destroy their happiness. By the time Telramund rushes in to kill Lohengrin, the relationship between the lovers was clearly beyond repair and Brandon Jovanovich’s Lohengrin looked pained at the unraveling of their happy dream. The final scene where Lohengrin restores Elsa’s lost brother from swan-form and leaves Brabant forever was a bitter leave-taking for all, especially the knight.

After promising turns with the company in Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Wagner’s Die Walküre, Jovanovich’s Lohengrin was eagerly anticipated in San Francisco. Rather than meet expectations, the tenor exceeded them, singing the role with passionate engagement and attractive tone throughout the long performance. Jovanovich’s farewell to the swan in Act I was voiced delicately like a private aside to his avian companion before he formally announced himself to the Brabantians with stunning authority.

In her San Francisco Opera debut, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was a sympathetic Elsa. Garbed in plain white gowns through much of the opera, she seemed a disconnected, other-worldly character of the narrative; a prophetic dreamer, naïvely unconcerned with the treacherous power grasping around her. As King Heinrich, Kristinn Sigmundsson trumpeted loudly, an approach that was at odds with his fine, statesman-like poise. Gerd Grochowski was excellent as Telramund, showing the characters pitiful self-destruction under the toxic influence of his wife, Ortrud. Petra Lang portrayed the sorceress’ relentless and reckless ambition most effectively during Act II. As the King’s Herald, Brian Mulligan declared with convinction.

Musically the performance was guided by the deft, constantly in-motion hands and arms of music director Nicola Luisotti. From the opera’s magnificent prelude until its final bars, Luisotti conducted with animation and unflagging energy, eliciting balance and a few perfectly calibrated climaxes. The massive scenes, such as the close of Act I, occasionally needed more clarity, but such moments will surely gain definition as the run proceeds. Onstage for most of the night, the chorus showed endurance and sang with focus and power. This arresting, updated production of Lohengrin and its excellent cast should not be missed.

Jeffery S. McMillan | 24 Oktober 2012

Opera Today

Exquisite pianissimos, sumptuous climaxes, gigantic fortes, insistent horns, sugary winds, tremulous brass, blasting trumpets, whispering strings, pulsating oboes, more gigantic fortes, even more sumptuous climaxes.

Lohengrin like never before. It was an orgy of orchestral colors, an adventure in sonic discovery, the absolute summit of virtuosic orchestral delivery. Maestro Nicola Luisotti attacked and conquered Lohengrin.

There. That’s done. What’s left now that it’s all over?

No longer mythic Germanic lore, this tale seemed to be an episode from, say, Ceausescu’s already mythic Romania, where books were torn from library shelves to burn to make electricity to light the libraries. Though in the emptied library in which all this took magic took place there was not enough juice to illuminate all the grandiose (Romanian socialist moderne) light sources. Well, save in the last scene when Lohengrin finally was going to save the masses. But bowed out.

The masses were magnificent socialists, eighty mighty workers (plus a few sword and standard bearers) who whispered in shimmering sounds and roared in full, transparent tones. But with such idealistic and obviously pleasurable glory in their sonority, and willing unity in their regimentation (yes, this multitude of virtuosic choristers was happily organized in lines and blocks) that they hardly needed to be saved from such perfection — to cede such artistry to mere Western materialism would be tragic indeed.

Meanwhile Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson in socialist general regalia was instructed to walk downstage center and be the embattled king Heinrich. Mr. Sigmundsson, once an estimable artist, here was perfect as crumbling, ineffective power. Baritone Brian Mulligan, a San Francisco Opera fixture, was Heinrich’s prissy acolyte, a welcomed vocal contrast to his superior. Mr. Mulligan is a richly voiced singer who complemented the maestro’s musical textures while overwhelming the import of this mere herald.

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was the Lohengrin, a role debut. He apparently has a new voice teacher as the perfectly reasonable tenor we heard a few years ago as Luigi in Il Tabarro has been transformed into a trumpet. While he has not yet mastered the subtlety of tone of a fine trumpeter he does have a surprising variety of volume if not color, though his first and last words in the opera were delivered in a tentative half voice that was cause for concern. Even with its moments of real beauty the sharpness of his tone worked with the costuming of this production to make him look and sound gawky. Though this maybe helped establish the assumed caricatural intent of this conception of Lohengrin.

Of the five principals the Elsa of Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund realized the most successful character. Elsa herself is a lost soul, and Mlle. Nylund though looking like a well-kept Romanian apparatchik had no idea how to be one. The purity of her voice and the innocence of her presence served her well, though in the bigger moments her voice could not ride the the maestro’s mighty crests, as could, for example, the out-of-scale voice of Mr. Jovanovich.

German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski seemed over parted as Telramund, diminishing the stature of evil in Wagner’s struggle to overcome baser levels of humanity. Mr. Grochowski’s fine baritone and interesting persona are more at home in roles that are more lyric and perhaps more complex psychologically. He lacks the inherent vocal color and physical force to personify an uncontrolled thirst for power, willing to say or do anything to get it. Reduced to a whimpering wimp in this production there was little for all those arcane powers of the Holy Grail to overcome.

Joining her homeless husband as Ortrud, the bag lady was German mezzo Petra Lang. Mme. Lang did not seem to be in good voice, her final curse thinly delivered, again underlining the opera’s need to endow evil with enough stature to be worth overcoming. As it was the famous pollution of socialist industry managed to create quite atmospheric lighting for Ortrud’s scenes brainwashing Telramund and deceiving Elsa, convincingly delivered by Mme. Lang.

The production by British director Daniel Slater and British designer Robert Innes Hopkins is from Geneva (2008) and was already in close-by Houston (2009). It apparently has the intention to remove all magic from Wagner’s tale where swans ferry supernatural knights back and forth from an imaginary mountain. The musical moments for these arrivals and departures are truly momentous, even in ordinary circumstances, but here the workers and apparatchiks stare always forward only to discover and not seem to care that the bus terminal was behind them.

The production could not support the musical values imposed by Mo. Luisotti. Magic, and a lot of it was sorely needed to give place and meaning to this mountain of sound.

Michael Milenski | 27 Oct 2012

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1920×1080, 4.4 Mbit/s, 6.7 GByte (MPEG-4)
Webstream (6 February 2021)
Possible dates: 20, 24, 28, 31 October, 3, 6, 9 November 2012
Also available as broadcast