The San Francisco Opera presented Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in Daniel Slater’s Grand Theatre du Geneve production. It was the occasion for the role debut of Brandon Jovanovich as the spellbound knight in the magical service of the Holy Grail. It also marks Music Director’s Nicola Luisotti venture into conducting Wagnerian opera. Both proved worthy champions of Wagner’s music.
[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Brandon Jovanovich’s Lohengrin
“Lohengrin” is the type of opera for which the War Memorial Opera House seems designed - the large, vigorous chorus and super-sized orchestra , the latter performing in its open pit, produce the Wagnerian “wall of sound” at the many moments of high drama.
Additionally, the War Memorial’s acoustics caress the heldentenor voice, assuring Jovanovich’s ability to convey a range of emotions vocally, from gentle affection to fury.
Jovanovich was effective in the role’s high tessitura in such passages as when he sings to his faithful swan. Jovanovich’s delivery of Lohengrin’s great aria In fernem land, explaining the spells that governed the knight’s venture into Brabant, was spellbinding in itself.
This is the third Wagnerian role debut for Jovanovich in San Francisco. Last year he performed his first Siegmund here [see Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011]. In an example of the luxury casting for which San Francisco Opera is renowned (including an example in this performance), Jovanovich also performed the smaller role of Froh [“Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011.]
Slater’s Soviet Bloc Brabant at the War Memorial
Daniel Slater’s production’s previous American performances have been in Houston, Texas, where I saw it [see Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009.] I still have reservations about the dissonance that between the magical themes that comprise the story of this opera and the non-magical setting of its time-shift into the 20th century. (Slater’s intention is to locate it in mid-20th century Hungary, during the short-lived Hungarian Revolution.)
Since I will be reporting on the third performance of this run as well as the first, I will reserve most of my comments about Slater’s implied geopolitical themes for my later review. (At that time, I will speak in greater detail about the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s performance and Luisotti’s inspired conducting.)
However, neither the sets nor costumes do much to detract from the overall performance. In fact, the sets are visually imposing and provide a solidity and spaciousness to the events of the opera that I believe add to rather than diminish the sonic triumph that Luisotti, Jovanovich, the supporting cast, orchestra and chorus achieve.
[Below: Men of the Brabantian army (the San Francisco Opera chorus) assemble in the Great Hall; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Franeicos Opera.]
Intermixed with the assault rifles and Soviet Bloc uniforms are most of the manifestations of the tenth century mythic elements one would expect in a more traditional production of “Lohengrin”.
The spellbound Gottfried, in his tiny uniform, still transports Lohengrin on his swan wings. Ortrud invokes Wotan and Freia and uses her well-honed skills as a sorceress. Telramund and Lohengrin engage in a trial by mortal combat to determine God’s judgment as to which one’s testimony is true.
[Below: Lohengrin (Brandon Jovanovich, center) victorious as the champion of Elsa (Camilla Nylund, right) presents the victor's sword to King Henry (Kristinn Sigmundsson, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Camilla Nylund’s Elsa
The cast was a familiar one for San Franciscans, except for the Elsa, the debuting Finnish soprano, Camilla Nyland. However, Nylund is not new to California, having sung Elizabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in the Southland [See my review at Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhauser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008.]
Nylund was an effective Elsa. Consider what the artist cast as Elsa has to do convincingly. She, while singing ethereal music, must believably portray a spellbound soul, while conveying how Ortrud’s seeds of doubt are working on Elsa’s equanimity.
Although first enthralled with her mysterious knight-champion, Elsa becomes increasingly uneasy as Ortrud aggressively challenges her as to why she must not ask anything about her new husband’s background. By uttering the fateful question that she must never ask, she destroys her marriage. (But this marital breakup has an unexpected consequence. Her dead brother is returned to life and is elevated to the throne of Brabant.)
[Below: Lohengrin (Brandon Jovanovich, left) has his first intimate moments with his new bride, Elsa (Camilla Nylund, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Petra Lang’s Ortrud and Gerd Grochowski’s Telramund
Although, from the audience’s standpoint, the villains of the opera, the characters Ortrud (played with the proper dose of menace by German mezzo-soprano Petra Lang) and Telramund (played by German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski) believe themselves in the right. They believe they are combating the sinister forces of black sorcery.
When Telramund’s reputation is destroyed in the trial by combat, in one of most effective inventions of Slater’s production, Ortrud and Telramund have joined a community of homeless persons on the city’s outskirts. (Conversely, Slater permitting Telramund to murder a soldier for his uniform to enable his re-entry into the city, seems an implausible act for a character whose overriding concern is loss of his honor.)
[Below: Ortrud (Petra Lang, left) devises a plan to obtain revenge for herself and Telramund (Gerd Grochowski, right) whom she comforts; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Heinrich der Voegler and Brian Mulligan’s Herald
Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson offered his familiar portrayal of an avuncular monarch. Nobles were played by Adler Fellows Ryan Kuster, Nathaniel Peake, and Joo Won Kang, and by Robert Watson.
This production’s example of luxury casting was assigning the role of the Herald to American baritone Brian Mulligan, only a few weeks after his bravura performance as President Richard Nixon in Adams’ “Nixon in China”.
[Below: Brian Mulligan (above) is the Herald; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I recommend this production. The performances of Jovanovich and Luisotti (and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus) proved to be sufficient reason to suggest that opera lovers able to travel long distances to see it should do so. Petra Lang’s Ortrud and Camilla Nylund’s Elsa draw special praise, and the remaining cast is strong.
For my review of another Slater production, see: “Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011.