Todd McCarthy Reviews Wagner's Lohengrin at LA Opera

Ben Heppner
Anne-Christine Poujoulate/AFP/Getty Images)
Women dominate the men in this under-achieving Wagner production.

The company debut of tenor Ben Heppner is like the nerve racking appearance of “a great veteran baseball pitcher”


Women dominate the men in this under-achieving Wagner production.Having just emerged from sustained immersion in the protracted roll-out of the LA Opera's first “Ring” cycle, Los Angeles audiences could perhaps not be blamed for being a bit Wagnered-out at the moment. They will likely feel even moreso after taking in the company's first Lohengrin in nine years, an intriguing but uneven new production the full potential of which felt unrealized on Saturday's opening night.

With James Conlon's fine orchestra not entirely matched by the work of those onstage, this “Lohengrin” features a conceptual backdrop--battlefront World War I—that similarly does not bear abundant thematic or creative fruit. It's also one in which the female singers for the most part dominate the males, which is notable given the expectations—and anxiety, due to well-publicized recent vocal problems—surrounding the company debut of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who has been singing the title role throughout the world since 1989.

Tackling a story derived from Germanic romantic legend and set by the composer in the 10th century , director Lydia Steier, a young American also making her LA Opera bow, situates most of the action in the bombed-out hollow of a Gothic church in Brabant on the Franco-German border. For all but a couple of scenes, roughly 70 battle-weary citizens and soldiers lie and loiter about in various states of despair, fatigue and bloodiness, the principals making their way through the crowd as best they can and the populace thundering to life periodically as a powerful vocal chorus. When more private moments are called for, designer Dirk Hofacker's imposingly rendered edifice revolves to backdrop them with the building's front and side.

Lohengrin arrives out of nowhere to help defend the noble Elsa against treacherous claims brought by her former fiance, Telramund, that she killed her younger brother. Normally delivered by swan-drawn boat, Lohengrin, son of Parsifal and spiritually blessed by his connection to the Holy Grail, here is first glimpsed inconspicuously stepping out of a makeshift medical tent equipped with a silver right leg which unfortunately makes him resemble as an only partially realized knight in shining armor; his stature is further diminished by a beige shirt that looked like food had spilled down its front onto the hero's distinctly unheroic gut. On opening night, Heppner's opening high-note salvos were so strained and off-target that one feared he might retreat back into the tent and surrender to a substitute.

Fortunately, he gradually improved, to the point where, in Lohengrin's long Act III revelation of his origins, Heppner showed signs of why he has for so long been not only the Lohengrin but the Tristan, Parsifal, Walther von Stolzing and Siegfried (next sesason at the Met) of choice for so many international opera companies. Heppner's performance on Saturday reminded of nothing so much as a great veteran baseball pitcher who is hit hard in the first, settles down in the middle innings and hangs on to record a nerve-wracking complete game.

This Lohengrin's immobility—he even sat down for long stretches, accentuating the overly static nature of Steier's staging—was partially offset by the energetic performance of James Johnson as Telramund, But both were upstaged by their female partners. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski, in her own LA Opera debut, sang quite agreeably, if not compellingly, as the lovestruck Elsa, who must agree never to ask Lohengrin who he is or where he came from, while mezzo Dolora Zajick socked over the Lady Macbeth-like role of Telramund's calculating wife. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson had the required stature as King Heinrich, although he had startling trouble giving volume to his lowest notes.

Director Steier devotes a full program page to explaining and defending her choice of the World War I setting, but little seems gained by it, other than to provide a fresh visual option to traditional stagings on the one hand and extreme stylization on the other, such as Robert Wilson's famously stark rendition (in which Heppner appeared) or Hans Neuenfel's Bayreuth production this year that featured a chorus of rats. The staging per se possesses only moderate vitality and elements such as the prosthetic leg and a silly duel could also be improved. In the text, Elsa is supposed to perish at the end but here she remained standing when last seen.

As potentially interesting as the World War I setting may have seemed on paper, perhaps Streier stopped short by 20-odd years. Maximilian Schell's strong 2001 production here featured a 20th century setting and some fascist uniforms but, if memory serves, no specific frame of reference. A World War II “Lohengrin”--that could be profoundly subversive and turn the meaning of the work entirely inside-out and upside-down.