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Wagner's Lohengrin at LA Opera -- Who Was That Masked Man?

11/23/2010 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Hiding one's identity to accomplish a job is not so foreign a concept to understand as latter-day stage directors of the opera Lohengrin would have us believe. Who, except operatives within the Bush administration, would deny Valerie Plame the necessity of keeping secret her membership in the CIA, even if from her husband, to accomplish her mission?

In the popular culture of our youths, did we ever doubt the nobility of purpose of the Lone Ranger just because he wore a mask? The people he saved never knew him until he mysteriously appeared when trouble lurked and they appreciated his need to disappear as soon as evil was vanquished.

The question of obscured identity is, of course, central to Wagner's Lohengrin, a new production of which L.A. Opera premiered last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a headliner cast led by Canadian tenor Ben Heppner.

The apotheosis of the Romantic opera, Lohengrin is the exemplar stage realization of chivalric myth. Its shining knight of the swan is sent from the distant guardians of the Holy Grail at Monsalvat to save a lady falsely accused of fratricide, but he is fated to leave her for the transgression of her wanting to know too much, that too much being his identity. Wagner weaves into this myth narrative subtexts, such as an actual historic power struggle at the collapse of Carolingian Europe and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and a struggle between the remnants of magical paganism and the newly dominant Christian faith.

Today's revisionist stagings are perversely harsh on Lohengrin. Take for example L.A. Opera's 2001 version that was later shared with the Kirov Opera -- a dark, dank, and depressing conception in which the central oak tree bore the visual accents of a crucified swan, under which Nazi-uniformed soldiers huddled. As recently as January it would have been revived here were it not that its elements had been cannibalized in the intervening decade for other productions in Russia.

Adversity opening a new door, General Director Plácido Domingo offered up to hastily selected director Lydia Steier (who had assisted on Achim Freyer's Ring Cycle and is debuting as director) "the opportunity and artistic freedom to rethink the production from the ground up."

With the ball in Steier's court, she took as her duty (as stated in notes accompanying the production) "to present a musical score and its story in the most honest and immediate manner possible (with) the work's performance in modern times (justified by) evolving tastes and technologies."

All very nice, but Steier's staging focuses not so much on intriguing questions of identity or belief systems as with the opera's historic setting, at best a minor dimension in the opera, but given major prominence here. The action is updated from the Tenth Century to the exigencies of a Twentieth Century nursing station in a burned out church near the front lines of the First World War.

King Heinrich (the historical Henry the Fowler) arrives in the powdered blue ceremonial uniforms of the Kaiser in Wilhelminan Germany. The Brabantians lay prostate in hospital cots as battered casualties of war. Heinrich asks for the assistance of these invalids to defend against the attacking Hungarians. During the course of Steier's staging, Heinrich will manipulate both Lohengrin and the Brabantians to support his warring ways. Telramund and his allied businessmen will resist war efforts, in some way pulling at our sympathies.

Immediately there are problems of logic and history. Tenth Century Saxony and Brabant (modern day Belgium) were allied members of a confederation whose independent states had elected Henry the Fowler to lead them. The Hungarians were powerful foreign aggressors. Henry was not a rash warmonger, but an enforcer of peace who had kept them out of war for nearly a decade by paying tribute to the swaggering Hungarians. Knowing that this was just a delaying game, he also necessarily prepared for the defense of his realm.

When the historic Heinrich came to Brabant seeking assistance, he was meeting not with wounded foot soldiers but assembled nobles, on the far western boundary of a loose confederation where they had lived peacefully and which his wise policies had made possible.

By updating the timeframe to the First World War and placing the action in the Belgian province of Brabant, battered and recently run over by the Kaiser's troops, Steier turns history on its head. By 1914, Austro-Hungary was an ally, not an enemy, of Germany and Belgium was their mutual victim. Having the Kaiser/Heinrich beseech as allies the bloodied and decommissioned casualties of his own aggression is risible absurdity.

But all of this is merely the distracting background to a story of individual human conflict and competition, which Steier only routinely unfolds but loads down with additional distractions. She is on firm ground when she suggests the central conflict is between "dogma" and "doubt" (faith vs. skepticism) but this dynamic is not so much Steier's new idea as Wagner's original conception. Steier only muddies the action with arbitrary plot inventions.

Resolutely set against the introduction of supernatural elements, Steier's swan conveyance to and from the action is reduced to a weatherized shimmer in the sky and a very grounded canvas hospital tent where Lohengrin will eventually emerge not as an idolized savior, but as an amputee in suspendered undershirt, his ample gut hanging out, and sporting a gleaming chromium prosthetic leg.

Prior to the action and during the opera's Holy Grail prelude, Lohengrin had lain languishing within that tent, the victim of the same recent battles as the rest of the assembled lame; he has already fought side by side with those to whom he will shortly become a total stranger. To the strains of the music, his soon-to-be sworn enemy Telramund, double cast by Steier as a field surgeon, removes Lohengrin's wounded leg.

Undoubtedly the shiny prosthetic has deep symbolic significance for Steier, but it is given no rationale to the audience, other than as a historic prop reminiscent of a piece of Wagner's originally conceived shining armor. What the amputated leg itself represents is anyone's guess. Perhaps it is to morph into the missing Gottfried, heir to Brabant, and Elsa's long lost brother, who emerges in the same tent soon after Lohengrin's final farewell.

The severed leg sets up another logical fallacy of unnecessary obscurity. The pagan Ortrud, robed here as a blood-stained nurse, tells her husband Telramund in the second act that the removal of even a tiny piece of Lohengrin's skin can disarm his power, urging him to do so. But she seems unaware (because it is not in the opera, of course) that his earlier surgery has already accomplished the deed, making foolhardy his ill-fated attempt to get a piece of Lohengrin in the final act. We are forced once again to grant Steier absurd artistic license.

Meanwhile, Steier passes up the potentially more interesting encounter of Ortrud and Elsa, the former planting doubts about Lohengrin's identity. This psychologically more relevant aspect unfolds quite conventionally, receiving far less attention than fussy prop side-shows.

Scenic and costume designer Dirk Hofacker, who had performed similar services in the 2001 Lohengrin, used a standard revolving unit set reminiscent of the iconic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (The Abby in the Oakwood or Cloister Ruins and Churchyard by the Sea) that have the feel of death and decay. Mark McCullough's lighting scheme underscores the dingy, bedraggled look in this supposedly most luminescent of operas.

Little imagination was expended moving around the cluttered bodies at the public gatherings, often in the way of easy movement of the principals. For good measure, and to establish the American-born Steier's newly polished credentials as a Berlin-based stage director, a few of King Heinrich's troops wear ever-recognizable German battle helmets of the First and Second World Wars. Some also rough up the wounded Brabantians in the third act as they try to win over the hearts and minds of their allied brethren.

Much back story attention had been focused on rumors surrounding the vocal condition of Ben Heppner, set to make his L.A. Opera debut in the title role. The L.A. Times reported just days ago that the world's reigning heldentenor had received "wounding criticism for a series of problems that have compromised his instrument (and) with the debut looming... both anticipation and concern have mounted."

More than a few on both sides of the stage were holding their breath as Heppner was about to exhale his. Yet, as the world just witnessed in a miraculous Chilean mine rescue, even pending disasters can find escape.

A frayed Heppner dug deep into the mine of his musical resources for something very precious -- his old vocal technique. Like a veteran racehorse sensing he is on his last outing at the track, Heppner was able to summon forth much of his bright, metallic ping and breath control. Nearly banished for four hours were the annoying wobble and lapse of secure line that had plagued him. A few cracks and dips notwithstanding, Heppner carefully steered through the evening with ample remaining resources for a stirring peroration before his prosaic departure in the tent.

Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski in her Company debut as a conventional Elsa, sailed her lyric silvery-toned soprano over the orchestra while in her upper ranges but was occasionally obscured in her middle voice. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was an imposing King Heinrich, who Steier has manipulating the action at every turn, as when he passes a knife to the momentarily swordless Lohengrin in the first act to finish off Telramund. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was a stentorian force of malevolent nature as Ortrud, with baritone James Johnson a distressed, Macbeth-like Telramund.

James Conlon conducted with flair his seventh Wagner opera here, his responsive orchestra now fully Wagnerian in its capabilities, and in a pit finally and gratefully uncovered after misguided experiments to obscure it à la Bayreuth for the Ring Cycle. The Grail motif shimmered, the wedding music ennobled, and the regal brass fanfares ringing from the hall's side rafters were as stirring as from any Olympics ceremony, but of infinitely greater musical caliber in this most lyrical of stage works. The solid chorus - the most resplendent in any Wagner opera - was prepared to its usual high standards by Grant Gershon.

Let me preach a little in conclusion. Lydia Steier should concentrate on resisting her own dogmas. Her conception of this opera, obviously with little lead time, adds scant original thinking to the last dim staging, and endorses Berlin-based Regietheater postures that originated in the aftermath of the Second World War. While it worked for several decades, the all-purpose toolbox of Wehrmacht symbols is by now a tired, clichéd bag of tricks. If applied to any and all uniformed depictions, even those of historic justification, these symbols lose their dramatic potency and breed audience ennui.

Enough already.

Not so much compromised by Heppner's anticipated poor performance as hobbled by an inexplicably bland and misguided staging, the latest production of Lohengrin had dodged one bullet only to be KO'd by another that it might easily have ducked.

Lohengrin runs at L.A. Opera through December 12. Above Photo: LA Opera
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net.