Thursday, November 8, 2012

Swanee, How I Love You!

Just as there are operas I'd love to revisit in a live performance (An Actor's Revenge, The Sinking of the Titanic, La GiocondaJoruri, Beatrice and Benedict, Where's Dick?), there's a long list of works I hope never to encounter again as long as I live (We Come to the River, The King Goes Forth to France, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, La Navarraise, Master Peter's Puppet Show, Minutes Till MidnightLa Vida Breve, Il Prigioniero, La Voix Humaine, Erwartung, The Rape of Lucretia, Goya, and Nine Rivers From Jordan).

Every now and then I get asked to name my favorite opera. Because there are many that I love, it's hard to focus on just one work.  On Halloween, however, I had a chance to revisit one of my all-time favorite works in a magnificent performance given by the San Francisco Opera. The evening brought back many warm memories.

When the Metropolitan Opera moved to Lincoln Center in September 1966, one of the first new productions to debut in their new home was Lohengrin. Designed and directed by Wieland Wagner, the performances were conducted by the great Karl Böhm

The opening night cast included Sándor Kónya in the title role, Ingrid Bjoner as Elsa, Christa Ludwig as Ortrud, and her husband,  Walter Berry as Telramund. Directed by Peter Lehmann, the production was noted for its tiered unit set (on which at least one member of the heavily-costumed chorus was guaranteed to faint during any performance).

The wedding scene from 1966's Lohengrin

That December 1966 production marked my first exposure to the works of Richard Wagner. Although the Met didn't have Supertitles in those days, I quickly fell under the music's spell and in love with the story. The plot of Lohengrin reads like a fairy tale that includes a damsel in distress, a mysterious hero with a secret, and a classic ogress (Ortrud) who is hell-bent on revenge.

A scene from Wieland Wagner's production of Lohengrin

While enrolled at Brooklyn College, I was so head-over-heels in love with Lohengrin that I used Ortrud's red wig as the inspiration for an 18-page term paper describing how classic villainesses (from ancient Egypt on through the character of Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) all had red hair.

Rochelle Roth, who sat next to me, hissed "Your paper is longer than mine. I hate you." My professor for that course in "Indo-European Myths and Legends" (Anna Babey-Brooke), made it clear that although she enjoyed reading my paper, we both knew it was utter bullshit.

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After I moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1969, there were many cold, winter nights when I would come home from work and place my recording of Lohengrin on the record player. Back in the days of 33-1/3 RPM albums, Lohengrin was a five-disc recording. Having carefully positioned all five discs on the spindle, I would lie down and fall into a deep sleep as Wagner's music continued to play.

After the fifth LP dropped into position, the record arm would keep repeating the fifth disc until that music was burned into my mind.  To this day, I experience a rare kind of joy and contentment when listening to Wagner's score.

While most people are familiar with the Prelude, "Elsa's Dream" the Bridal Chorus, and Lohengrin's aria ("In fernam land"), one of my favorite passages of music occurs in Act III.  In the following clip, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performs the 'Morgenrote (Dawn)" under James Levine's baton.

In 1978, the San Francisco Opera premiered a gorgeous new production of Lohengrin designed by Beni Montresor with a cast headed by Guy Chauvet (Lohengrin), Anne Evans (Elsa), and Janis Martin (Ortrud). It was during the 1982 revival, however (starring Peter Hofmann as the Swan Knight and Pilar Lorengar as his bride), that the production caught fire when the great Leonie Rysanek sang the first Ortrud of her career.

Several years later, Live from Lincoln Center telecast a Metropolitan Opera performance of Lohengrin starring Peter Hofmann with Eva Marton as Elsa and Rysanek chewing the scenery as Ortrud. The following clips demonstrate what a great artist can do with a great role.

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I've been lucky enough to attend performances of Lohengrin at the Met (1966, 1968, 1984, 1986), San Francisco Opera (1978, 1982, 1989), Lyric Opera of Chicago (1980) and the New Orleans Opera (1985). Fast forward to Halloween of 2012. The San Francisco Giants had been given a massive welcome to celebrate their triumphant performance in the World Series that morning with a parade down Market Street.

As should be expected in San Francisco, numerous members of the audience arrived dressed for Halloween (during intermissions one elderly gent could be seen in the basement restaurant wearing bunny ears and a fake nose). The real glory of the evening, however, could be heard in the auditorium where conductor Nicola Luisotti and chorus director Ian Robertson shaped the kind of operatic performance one dreams about.

While there is much about Lohengrin's score to love, the success of any performance of Wagner's opera depends, in large part, on the work of the chorus.  The members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus delivered an absolutely stunning sound with a thrilling display of vocal dynamics.

Making his debut in the title role, Brandon Jovanovich gave a classic demonstration of how electrifying it can be to hear a healthy, full-voiced heldentenor with no fear of making it through the evening. Singing with lyric strength and great clarity, the tall, athletic Jovanovich was every bit the romantic hero one dreams of being rescued by. His Elsa (Camilla Nylund) was blonde, buxom, and eager to believe in her chivalrous husband until, of course, Ortrud started working her feeble nerves.

Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin with
Camilla Nylund as Elsa (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

What she may have lacked in height, Petra Lang made up for in volume and evil intensity, belittling her husband (Gerd Grochowski's pliable Friedrich von Telramund), mocking Elsa's gods, and reveling in the perverse strength of her sorcery. At times, Lang made one think of a power-hungry Ann Romney trying to steal the throne.

Petra Lang as Ortrud with Gerd Grochowski as Telramund
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Kristinn Sigmundsson appeared as King Henry with Brian Mulligan as the King's Herald. Daniel Slater's stage direction was clean and efficient. I was particularly impressed with the set design by Robert Innes Hopkins (most notably his bedroom set for Act III, Scene I). Suffice to say I had a very happy Halloween wallowing in a superb performance of one of my most beloved operas. Here's the trailer:

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