If you are a regular reader, you could probably guess that I was somewhat dreading Lohengrin at the San Francisco Opera. For one thing, it clocks in (with intermissions) at four hours and twenty minutes. For another, it’s in German. Aside from not liking to rely completely on subtitles, I just don’t think German is a beautiful language. While music lovers may argue, I know I’m not alone in this. It didn’t help that we were there on election night, which was distracting to say the least.
I expected to love or hate this opera, but oddly enough ended up in neither camp. And, as happened earlier this season, it came down to set design.
In short, I hated it.
That’s right, I said it.
I understand why someone who had already seen this mythic story about sorcery and medieval knights many times might want to see something different this time around, but resetting the opera as some sort of Eastern Bloc cautionary tale failed completely for this Wagner newbie. It stripped it of any heroism or magic (in all senses of the term) and made it extremely difficult to lose myself in the story—which is kind of essential in a four-hour extravaganza.
I’m not opposed to resetting. After all, Serse, which shifted a tale about the King of Persia to Vauxhall Gardens, was my favorite opera of 2011. However, this time it just didn’t work, particularly in the last act, when the bride and groom appeared to be stuck in some sort of contemporary art exhibit. Not only did it not make sense given the Soviet-era realism that came before, it actually hurt my eyes.
Setting aside, I liked the actual opera more than I thought I would. I’m always a fan of rich sound and the prevalence of the deeper woodwinds and strings in the score, not to mention the martial brass, was very welcome. Musically, I was struck by a repeating motif that sounded extremely similar to Swan Lake. I can only presume this is intentional borrowing on Tchaikovsky’s part, given the primary role of swans in each piece.
Last, but not least, the singing continues to be a high point for me this season, with Brandon Jovanovich leading the way as Lohengrin. Camilla Nylund was in fine voice as Elsa, but her acting left a lot to be desired, especially when compared to Petra Lang as Ortrud. Both Gerd Grochowski as Telramund and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Heinrich der Vogler were very strong and convincing, as was Brian Mulligan as the King’s Herald (last heard as the lead in Nixon in China).
So, while this won’t go down as my favorite of the season, at least I am no longer afraid of Wagner. And that’s saying quite a lot.