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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

Comments () | Archives (29)

Our esteemed critic sat a row behind me last night at this performance, and I was dying to read what his take would be. I think what we have here is Swed at his very best: incisive, brutally frank without being hateful, and precise about why this production is such a failure. What we have here is a tame, not-really-thought-out production of what is admittedly an opera written by a composer on his way to becoming great. None of the daring imagination we got, willy-nilly, with Freyer's "Ring," which looks better and better in retrospect.

I am dismayed to read a 750-word "review" of Lohengrin with nary a word about the four-hour efforts of the company and chorus. Apparently, there was a conductor and orchestra present opening night. The only reason I know this is your brief opining that "conductor James Conlon quixotically emphasized Wagner’s radiance in the orchestra. That did little good." Mr. Swed, must we again read far too much about what performers wear? Have you nothing worthy to share about the composer, conductor, score, company or chorus?

Finally a candid review from Mark Swed regarding L.A. Opera.
In the past, his writings seemed way too pleasing, on may occasions, which didn't serve the ambitions of this company well.
Although hopes were high for this new Lohengrin, in the wake of the recent Ring Cycle, this new production (unnecessay, to say the least-the Schell version from 2001 was triumphant, anddeserved to be resurrected), this is a nightmarish attempt of an unexperienced director's assistant to deal with Wagner. Unfortunately for Lydia Steier, those shoes were too big to fill for her. Drowning with Lohengrin is pretty much the worst scenario for her.
Lot's to learn!!!!!

From orchestra row U, all we saw of Lohengrin's entrance was a white belly, then the hobo costume, then a rubber ducky sized toy swan tossed back into the tent that the "knight" came out of. It was a bad production. Glad to see that opera critics are holding up the standards of opera in Los Angeles. Bravo!

It would have been nice if Mr. Swed had taken the time, 2 minutes, to do some research:

Ortrud is not Dolora Zajick's first foray into Wagner, it is actually, her return to the composer after 25 years. In the summer of 1985 Dolora Zajick performed the role of Schwertleite in San Francisco Opera's production of Die Walkure. That information is easily accessible on the internet and there is even a PDF of the cast page from the season brochure.


In Fact, Dolora Zajick herseld talked about this misconception on a recent interview with Opera News.

If Mr. Swed had said that this was Zajick's first big Wagner role or her debut as a Wagner principal, it would have been more accurate.

Lindoro Almaviva

I'm saddened to read this. The last production LA Opera did with Gosta Winburg was magnificent. I hope they get their act together by the time I go in December.

I am sorry that obviously LAOpera audience was not particularly fond of Soile Isokoskis Elsa. From our production in Vienna (unfortunately done by a bad director) I know that she is ravishing. But on the other hand, if she is not liked in LA she will not come back and we will enjoy more of her over here in Europe. Thank you!

We, too were at the opening night performance. The only bizarre anachronism in this production not mentioned by Mr.Swed was Elsa's black wedding dress, which was obviously intended to make her look like QueenVictoria. I guess she was in mourning already for the husband she already knew she would never keep.
My comments, emailed to friends yesterday, suggested that Buddy Hackett had returned to life to play the role of Lohengrin. I've been spoiled by too many attractive divas and lead tenors.

I sat in row D, center. At best, this was a sophmoric production. I wonder if the Eli and Edythe Broad General Director approved of it. If so, it may be time for him to retire.

The historicism of this Lohengrin was also lame, with a realism to the set and costumes more fitting to a silent movie about WWI than a 21st century opera production. The director's statement about dogma versus doubt became the guiding meat grinder for this stagey sausage. And then there are the absurdities: when Telramund bellows that if he could just cut off the tip of Lohengrin's pinky the knight's magic would be feckless many in the audience sniggered because we knew the hero's amputated leg was still lying somewhere back in the field surgery tent on stage. Why retain Wagner's text when setting the action on the Western Front produces unsung howlers, from the Hungarians as enemies to the ancillary amputation of the swan boat? It would have been better to refashion the libretto than to have the constant contradiction between text and what was shown on stage. At least LA Opera should re-title future performances as A FAREWELL TO SWANS to let the unsuspecting opera fan some notion of what sort of dreck to expect.

I went to Die Walkure because of Anja Kampe. SHE was the only saving grace
of that performance. I should have remembered, "Once burned, twice learned" but Lohengrin is my favorite opera. I've seen it all over the world - Bayreuth, London, Syndney, New York, Philly,Milan, et al. I never dreamed
anyone could destroy such an incredible ART form, but Lydia Steier and the
LA Opera have done it. I drove 6 hours from Phoenix. Had it not been for the
desire to hear what I consider the most dramatic aria in all of opera, "In Fernem Landt,"at the end of the last act, I too would have joined the throngs and left for home at the end of ACT ONE. The Ring cost the LA Opera how many millions? Now another artistic disaster? How much longer before the LA Opera ceases to exist or turns into another Arizona Opera Company? That is NOT a compliment, my friends! I was a Met subscriber for 20 years before moving west in 1988. I know my opera. What I saw Saturday night was a total disgrace to LA, to Opera, but most of all to the genius of Wagner. Ms. Steier is far from genius. She is not even remotely creative, but she is good enough to get some monied persons in LA to support her, yet again. How many more empty houses will it take before LA Opera figures it out?? Or will they be BANKRUPT first? Why not change Boheme and give Mimi a shot of Penicillin
to cure her TB or have Don Jose and Carmen kiss while Escamillo is gored by an angry Bull? Those would change the endings of operas too, just as the story of Lohengrin was changed. It makes as much sense! Right?

We were also at the opening performance. The orchestra and chorus were amazing as was most of the singing, but Mark Swed was correct in his description of the production. I cannot believe someone living in Berlin would put this opera in a WWI timeframe with its arias about the might of the German military--- we don't need to have any further reason to distrust Wagner! Either stick to showing the beautiful Arthurian fantasy of the Knights of the Holy Grail or go totally symbolic and abstract as with The Ring Cycle. And what about the swans?!?! This was a confusing mess and I am glad the audience and the critics saw through it. That means that LA Opera has matured enough to try something different and fail miserably as all the other great opera companies have done for generations!

How can the Board of Directors and PD justify trashing a very good production of Lohengrin that was performed only one season (2001) and pay out for a new production that is mediocre at best? Apparently the Board and Executive Staff at LA Opera feel they have money to burn, right after being bailed out by the County! It does not seem to make sense for LA Opera to ask patrons for donations when the leadership runs the company in this manner.

When it came time for me to renew my subscription, I looked around for old reviews of this season's productions to see if I wanted to get a better seat. The reviews for LA Opera's previous "Lohengrin" were not particularly good (IIRC, the complaint was, "too many anachronisms"). Next I expect everyone will start looking fondly on Julie Taymor's reportedly awful "Flying Dutchman."

I'd never seen this in any form, and was totally taken by this production (yes, in spite of the badly handled swan- obvious even to a first-timer like me). The stunning performances all around made it easy to overlook the shortcomings of the production. The giant set was impressive; I got a kick every time it revolved. The staging itself was rarely boring; no aimless wandering that plagues opera worldwide.

My biggest question: why was it snowing inside the bombed-out church but not outside?

If you've never seen "Lohengrin" in any form, this is a superb chance to get familiar with the music. LAO's singers and orchestra are in great form.

"The reputation and future of Los Angeles Opera, 15 years old, will not rest on any single opera or project, no matter how grand or symbolic its intentions. But enough rests on its new production of "Lohengrin" to make it a watershed for the company. The fact that its first performance, Saturday afternoon at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was a resounding success provides exactly the kind of credence that Placido Domingo needs to back his rhetoric about making Los Angeles an operatic capital." Review by Mark Swed, Sept. 17, 2001

It is very sad to read how "provincial" ( in negative sense) are american critics.
I suggest this critic to come to europe and make a trip in different opera houses where he can realize how directors try to let understand the public all the aspects of an opera.

Steir production had some great ideas that were fit to opera.
Hope others will continue this work and not have in american opera house only pure illustrative directors that are useless.

Mr. Swed has given us a pretty accurate look - I was there and share his feelings. Obviously Ms. Steier gave us an anti-war Lohengrin, what with all the wounded citizens/soldiers lying pitifully around the stage. However, in her directorial zeal, she has the healthy soldiers kick the crud out of a cripple and commit a near-rape. How do we make sense of this? Everybody is singing the same words - soldiers and civilians. Whose side are we on? For that matter, whose side are *they* on? It's hard to say whether Ms. Steier is a disciple of Achim "ignore what the composer said" Freier or Julie "let's go 180 degrees against what the composer said" Taymoor. The net effect is the same: drama is replaced by incoherent ranting. And here's a Pro Tip: if the audience laughs when a major character is killed, you really need to rethink the scene.

On the plus side, the chorus sang extremely well, and the sound from the pit was much much much better than it was during the Ring.

Since I started listening to and attending opera, I have considered it a viable and possibly vibrant theatrical form. With the sweep of such large images and emotions, how could it be anything else? Even so, many have considered opera something of an aburdist entertainment. It's a charge hard to refute when productions such as the current "Lohengrin" are put before the public. Contradictions between the text and the visuals abounded, making scenes incomprehensible to all but the most educated. Even then, one had to scratch one's head and ruminate on interpretive possibilities. In the meantime, however, the opera is proceeding, leaving us detached, frustrated and perhaps bored when the production is not making immediate sense. Yes, artistic work such as that of this staging might be worthwhile on reexamination; that's what I was told when the merits of the Freyer "Ring" were being argued. But at the price of a ticket, how many times can you go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion to check in and hope for improvements? First time opera goers, the hope of the future, probably left at intermission.

Dear Mr. Wilson (11/22/10 comment), I don't understand how LA Opera could hand over Wagner's wonderful romantic opera to a 32-year old newcomer with no experience at a major stage. Ms. Steier established her reputation in Europe as the disciple of Calixto Bieito (please read about him). Then we had the disaster at the Met with Bondy, Gelb and Levine's La Tosca production. Disgusting. People who go to the opera for the first time, will never go a second time, if this is being kept up. Here is what's going on, Mr. Wilson. No. 1: "They" don't see Wagner as a genius, and No. 2: "They" call us opera and classical music lovers "elitists." We can't have this. By serving us sick productions, and I mean sick, "they" hope that we will lose our desire ever wanting to attend another performance. Then "they" will eventually say, "no more opera in LA because people just don't appreciate opera." Never before have been ticket prices so drastically reduced after a couple of performances as recently, and never have I received so many advertisements via e-mail and by mail before. Already people are staying away and rather listen to their CD's at home. Mr. Swed is absolutely right. I share his opinion through and through. Let's just ask for our money back because "they" have betrayed us. Maybe "they" will get the message. I feel sorry for Maestro James Conlon who does his best to save production after production, but receives little recognition because of people like Ms. Steier who have neither respect for Wagner nor for the audience, conductor and singers. Amen.

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