SF Opera’s Lyrical Lohengrin—singers, chorus and orchestra add up to music for the ages…meet Camilla Nylund this Sunday when she signs cds
Now in his 4th season with San Francisco Opera, Music Director Nicola Luisotti has proven many times over that when a production is theatrically flat, he will awaken it musically. And that he did on Saturday, dazzling again, as he energetically tackled Wagner for the first time ever in San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, which runs through Friday, November 9, 2012. At Saturday’s premiere performance, the lush music coming from Luisotti’s orchestra directed the singers and Ian Robertson’s marvelous opera chorus as they filled the opera house with one of the most musically memorable Lohengrins ever.
But as divine as the music was, British theatre and opera director Daniel Slater’s production itself was disappointing. Abandoning Wagner’s 10th century Belgium setting and, instead, taking inspiration from the military and political contexts surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Slater’s update could have been interesting but failed to fly. When combined with Robert Innes Hopkins’ dull sets and bland costumes, the result was a visually drab experience that made me wonder if this was the same opera company that had so delighted us this summer with its astoundingly visual Magic Flute, brought to life by artist Jun Kaneko. With the advent of high-definition video via satellite (HD simulcast), which has become increasingly popular since its introduction in 2006, opera has reached a turning point. Production values need to be as high as musical values, otherwise the result is major attrition from live local performances to the $23 (cheaper) and sometimes immensely more interesting HD broadcast offerings available at the local movie theatres.
Why see this production then? Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is one reason. The entire opera is anchored by his superb and consistently lyrical singing in the role of Lohengrin, the mysterious Knight of the Grail, who appears to defend the princess Elsa who has been accused wrongly of the murder of her brother. Jovanovich, who delivered a vibrant Siegmund in SFO’s 2011 production of Die Walküre, was again mesmerizing and unfaltering all night long in the vocally grueling role. While his most notable arias are in Act III— “In fernem Land” and Mein lieber Schwan—his singing throughout was big and yet expressively romantic. His voice blended beautifully with Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, his love interest. From the moment Jovanovich/Lohengrin came on stage to bid the swan farewell, there was no question that Elsa would agree to marry him and to never ask his name or history. This tall and strapping stranger was in all ways heroic and the roaring ovation he received from the audience was well-deserved.
In her San Francisco Opera debut, the Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, captured the maiden Elsa’s dreamy nature and sung beautifully. She’s a truly tragic heroine whose idealistic faith and trust are shattered. She enters in Act I wrongfully accused of murder and spends most of Acts II and III in anxiety, as she is humiliated on her way to the altar. She then breaks her martial vow and later collapses. A particularly juicy moment came when Nylund unleashed her considerable vocal reserve on Petra’s Lang’s cunning, showing that she was not all milk toast. Her voice blended well with Jovanovich, particularly in their Act III duet ‘Das süsse Lied verhallt’ (Love duet).
Mezzo Soprano Petra Lang, who made quite an impression in her 2007 SF Opera debut as the sizzling Venus in Tannhäuser, again brought a dramatic flair to her role that was on par with excellent singing. As Ortrud, the old-world sorceress who really stirs the drama, Lang seemed to delight in vexing the vulnerable Elsa. Dressed in a business suit that evoked the bright blue of the old two-stroke East German Trabbi (Trabant), synonymous with the communist bloc, the fiery redhead seemed completely at home in the role, despite the awful costume. Lang has sung Ortrud in Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, Vienna, Geneva, London and Edinburgh and will reprise the role later this season at the Bayreuth Festival. On Saturday’s opening performance, her voice was bursting with energy and her performance far more compelling than Nylund’s.
German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski was outstanding as Ortrud’s husband Friedrch von Telramund, who is duped into wrongly charging Elsa but takes great twisted pleasure in doing so. Grochowski had his SF Opera debut in November 2010 beside the indefatigable Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Jaroslav Prus in The Makropulos Case.
While there’s little point in dwelling on the mundane, the sets by Robert Innes Hopkins did nothing for the opera. The beginning action seemed to occur in a large drab room accentuated by shelves scantily filled with books. The wedding suite was presented as a diorama and looked like a cheap hotel room. Green garlands covered the wall seams and an oddly out-of- place colonial style lamp hung from the ceiling.
The costumes were worse. The men of Brabant were in tan military duds and the women recalled droll DDR fashion. Camilla Nylund, a large woman to begin with, spent most of the evening dressed in long storybook princess style flowing gowns that tended to emphasize her size.
Lohengrin is sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions
Details: Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin is at War Memorial Opera House through Friday, November 9, 2012. Remaining Performances: 10/28 (1p.m.), 10/31(7 p.m.), 11/3 (7 p.m.), 11/6 (7 p.m.) 11/9 (7 p.m.) Tickets: : $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or online at www.sfopera.com. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended garages near the opera house are the Performing Arts Garage and Civic Center Garage (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)