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Opera review: Los Angeles Opera stages a new production of 'Lohengrin'

November 21, 2010 |  4:45 pm

Lohengrin 1 Los Angeles Opera’s new production of “Lohengrin” gets off on the wrong foot. OK, it’s a shiny silver prosthetic leg.

Poor Lohengrin came out in the wrong costume, as well, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night. Wagner’s spotless knight of the Holy Grail, meant to arrive on his beloved swan, instead made his entrance to the accompaniment of his resplendent music as a World War I German soldier, an amputee miraculously resurrected from a fatal surgery in a horrid makeshift field hospital. That left Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner inelegantly stuffed into a dirty T-shirt.

To try to defend the production by Lydia Steier would be a thankless task, too many clumsy details damn it. A lame “Lohengrin” -– she’s setting herself up.

Still, this is the first major U.S. opera staging by a feisty young American who lives in Berlin, has ideas and German fans in high places. She was Achim Freyer’s assistant director on Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which opened L.A. Opera’s recent “Ring” cycle. She has collaborated in Germany with the controversial Spanish director Calixto Bieito, whose appetite for graphic gangbangs, stage sets dripping with bodily fluids and choruses singing on toilets have made him a sensation (loved and loathed) in Europe and anathema to cautious American opera companies.

There is no need to summon the opera sex police, Steier doesn’t do any of that in her “Lohengrin.” She does not even go so far as to eliminate conventional bad opera acting. Nor does she challenge Wagner’s outlandish sexism in an opera that is based on the notion that a maiden in unjust distress may only marry her savior if she never demands to know his name or past. The best rejoinder to Lohengrin that Elsa managed Saturday was to throw one of the pillows on their flower-bedecked wedding bed at her secretive new husband.

Quite a few Saturday night headed home after the first act. In it, bandaged and blood-spattered wounded come to zombie-life, touching Lohengrin’s silvery appendage as if evangelically healed. The nobleman Friedrich von Telramund becomes the ward’s creepy medic and his guileful wife, Ortrud, a nurse suitable for a slasher flick. The sets and costumes by Dirk Hofacker are meant to be downers. King Henry and his troops parade about in powder blue Prussian uniforms.

Against gloom and doom –- and falling snow -- conductor James Conlon quixotically emphasized Wagner’s radiance in the orchestra. That did little good. Heppner was unfortunately a little late in making his L.A. Opera debut. You could never predict which notes or phrases would be clarion and which not.

The much-heralded Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski was a surprisingly bland Elsa. She sounded sure but, at first she seemed just another downtrodden war victim.   
Lohengrin 3 Things did improve, however. Isokoski slowly began to shine vocally, although she was never much more than a naïve stock Elsa. As Ortrud, Dolora Zajick, the mezzo-soprano best known for portraying slightly crazed Verdi characters, made her first foray into Wagner Saturday. Her lurid costume signaled camp. She was fun to watch and exciting to hear, but this time more than slightly crazed. That meant both the main women in the opera were treated as comic-book figures.

Still they dominated. Neither Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Henry nor his herald, Eike Wilm Schulte, proved commanding. No doubt following orders, James Johnson was an overwrought Friedrich. Heppner looked much better when he moved up in the world into his blue Prussian number with cutaway for the silver leg and he sounded better too. He said his goodbyes to his swan (there was no swan, there never is these days), his voice breaking less and displaying more sweetness.

Although Steier never spelled out what she meant by a lame Lohengrin, his paranormal prosthesis wound up seeming nothing more than a leg wrapped in silver foil. Was he meant to be a fake all along and was Elsa right not to trust him? War is hell, and it makes us susceptible to all sorts of deceit.

The production needs work, lots of it. Spirited young singers would suit it better than established opera stars. So would a small stage. Steier might even benefit from throwing in a touch of the bump and grind that she does not shy away from overseas. Opening night felt unfinished and under-rehearsed.

There is no getting around that the show is a turkey. But it is a wild turkey, not for cooking. It can grow on you as the hours tick by. It may, as the run progresses, surprise us yet.

-- Mark Swed

"Lohengrin," Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 2 p.m. Nov. 28 and Dec. 12; 6:30 p.m. Dec. 4 and 9; $20-$270; (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com. Running time: 4 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Top, Ben Heppner as Lohengrin in the new Los Angeles Opera production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night; below, Dolora Zajick as Ortrud. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times

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