All photos © Ken Howard 2001

The LA Opera's "Lohengrin" of Ricard Wagner is an interesting production by Maximillian Schell that mixes modern elements with traditional and a heavy dose of symbolism. The cast is strong everywhere, even in the smaller roles, such as the pages, noblemen, and Martin Gantner's Herald. Eva Marton, Gosta Winbergh, and Tom Fox are all you would expect, from Ortrud, Lohengrin, and Telramund, while Adrianne Pieczonka is a jewel of an Elsa.

In Wagner, the orchestra takes on extra importance, and Kent Nagano shines in the pit. "Lohengrin" is a transitional work in Wagner's oeuvre. It has elements of the spaciousness of "Tristan" and "Parsifal," a hint of the leitmotiv, especially in Lohengrin's theme and the swan, but none of these are developed like in the "Ring" and the later operas. Nagano captures all of the spaciousness and transparency where it's supposed to be. He lets the sound wash over you, without rushing, and propels the action forward when he can. Wagner is best played when you don't really notice the music, but it's just part of the total effect of the drama unfolding before you, and it becomes part of you. Kent Nagano captures this, and that's no small feat, especially with this opera.

The sets are kind of strange. Acts 1 and 3 have a big geometric shape at the back that looks sort of like an expressionistic St. Andrew's Cross. The arms of the cross are slowly lowered and become the swan in the arrival and departure. Lohengrin's arrival is a spectacular scene. Elsa has been accused by Telramund of killing her brother, among other things. After the second call for a champion to defend her, green smoke roils up from the floor at the back with flashing rays of light from the heavens with lasers and strobes. Lohengrin appears at the back with a commanding presence as Elsa prostrates herself on the floor. Lohengrin makes his demand that she never asks him his name, lineage, or where he came from. Ortrud and Telramund stand together at the front of the stage, looking off to the side with their backs turned to the others. When Lohengrin pronounces Elsa's innocence, Telramund turns and challenges him.

"Lohengrin" has some of Wagner's best choral writing, and a large chorus is on stage for most of the evening. There's a lift where much of the action takes place, so the stage tends to be small and close. The fight scene is brief, and after Lohengrin dispatches him, he and Elsa move around and greet everyone like a President working a rope line.

Act 2 is dark and hazy. There's a prominent geometric shape at the back that looks like a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. Telramund is disgraced and banished, and Ortrud plots her revenge. She wants to rule Brabant, as her ancestors did, and Lohengrin and Elsa are in the way. She casts her spell on Telramund, who struts and plots his revenge against what he calls Lohengrin's treachery. Eva Marton's Ortrud just drips with venomous evil as she hatches her plot, and they sing their dark duet.

Adrienne Pieczonka's Elsa is sweetness and radiance. When Ortrud tells how she had hated her, Elsa forgives her. When Ortrud tells her that he who came to you through magic may one day leave by magic, the seeds of doubt are planted. Telramund appears as Hitchcock turns blood red and rays of light stream down from the ceiling.

The second scene is against a backdrop of a big gothic cathedral. It's like a duotone of Monet's Rouen Cathedral with a similar texture. Totems are held aloft like giant scarecrows, and Telramund demands Lohengrin's name and ancestry. He refuses and Elsa collapses.

For the wedding scene the rise is stretched end to end. Candles are placed around it, and there's a big red bed in the center. After the guests leave they get on the bed, and she starts dancing around the question of his identity. He sits up with a start and tries to turn the subject. She presses and forces it. When he agrees, she collapses on the bed.

The soldiers assemble in World War II uniforms with clear Plexiglass shields. Elsa sits in a heap on the front of the lift with her back to the assembly. Gosta Winbergh's Lohengrin is majestic as he reveals the splendor of the Grail and his lineage as the son of the King of the Grail Knights, Parsifal. Darkness descends as the cross lowers to become the swan. It glows at the back as Lohengrin departs and Gottfried is returned.

Allen Burrett's lighting effects are what really lift this production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" above the ordinary, visually, while everything else is simply spectacular. It continues at The Music Center.



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