Lohengrin Conquers Houston
Brown Theater, Wortham Center
10/30/2009 - & November 1, 8, 13, 15
Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
Ryan McKinny (Royal Herald), Günther Groissböck (King Heinrich), Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich of Telramund), Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa of Brabant), Simon O'Neill (Lohengrin), Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Richard Bado (chorus master), Patrick Summers (conductor)
Daniel Slater (director), Robert Innes Hopkins (set and costume designer), Simon Mills (lighting designer)
A. Pieczonka & S. O'Neill (© Felix Sanchez)
The thunderous applause that greeted the Act I curtain of Houston Grand Opera's Lohengrin speaks to the excellence of the production. With one of the strongest casts assembled on the Brown Theater stage in recent memory, it is a huge success. This - long-awaited return to German opera at HGO - flaunts the prowess of the company, with Patrick Summers leading his resident orchestra and chorus in a taut crackerjack of a performance. There is not a weak link anywhere in the thoughtfully assembled cast. Technically, all of the leads have command of their challenging roles, and each complex character is thoroughly and convincingly developed.
Richard Paul Fink's venomous portrayal of Friedrich is spot-on. His confident, gruff pronouncements in the opening act are tempered by an exciting, volatile second act performance, where he shifts effortlessly and convincingly between defeated outcast and reinvigorated villain. When Elsa appears, Friedrich's simple, brief mention of her name is coupled with a telling glance that creates a tangible friction in his psyche. The tone is suddenly shivering and naïve in direct contrast to the preceding full-throated "Der Rache Werk", where he momentarily seemed potent enough to overwhelm even Ortrud's powers.
Simon O'Neill is thrilling in the eponymous role. He projects powerfully over the fullest orchestral textures with healthy tone and clear diction and is the quintessential stoic throughout the third act. Adrianne Pieczonka possesses a gorgeous, bell-like voice that is perfect for Elsa. Her dynamic range is truly staggering, dominating the massed forces at the end of the first act then singing with childlike purity when she next appears in act two.
It is Christine Goerke, however, who steals the show. Her stage presence and vocal charisma are so strong that she consistently amplifies the rest of the cast's already impressive performances. Fink's conviction is at its peak and Pieczonka reveals new and exciting aspects of her voice whenever they are interacting with Goerke, whose fearless execution of Ortrud's role throughout is a masterpiece of singing. Even the orchestra and chorus become more and more inspired when she is onstage, creating a truly breathtaking and memorable second act.
Exceptional support comes from the exactitude of the HGO chorus and orchestra. The men of the chorus deserve special mention, singing with rhythmic precision and a dazzling blend of sound. The orchestra has never sounded better, from the supple opening strings and woodwinds to full, round brass passages. Summers exaggerates the extremes of the score, showing excellent control in a measured first act prelude and then really stepping on the gas in the quick passages of Act III, his orchestra changing gears effortlessly. Part of the reason German opera has been absent since 2001, according to Summers, is that "Houston Grand Opera's own orchestra needed time to grow and attain its own identity." This has clearly been achieved and the future seems exceedingly bright for the company now that its foundation is so firmly in place.
The staging of the opera is beautifully rendered, but problematic when considered alongside the drama. Wagner was very precise in his stage directions, instructing, for instance, that the opera should open outdoors, on the banks of a river and the third act should open with ladies and men escorting Elsa and Lohengrin into the bridal chamber. While these directions don't always need to be taken at face value in a successful production, their components need to be kept intact in one form or another to maintain the congruence necessary to produce a true Gesamtkunstwerk.
Slater and Hopkins seem intent on making the opera realistic and political, instead of playing up its inherent mystery and spirituality. The majority of the staging takes place in something resembling a communist party library, with no representation, literal or otherwise, of the rivers, forests and cathedral specified by Wagner. Indeed, this "library" ends up seeming unintentionally neutral and incongruent. It's a very "general" set that could work with a bevy of operatic situations, lacking the specialized features that would instantly bind it to Lohengrin. Wagner continuously emphasizes natural elements, each of which enhances the opera's Romantic inclinations, but in this staging they are muted or absent. This is exacerbated by a militarism imposed on the story and repeatedly emphasized in the staging, costumes and even the translation of the libretto chosen for the supertitles. The conception of the ending of the opera is the most notable misfire. It is unclear that it is Gottfried that has been transformed by black magic. It is he, not Lohengrin, who is supposed to be wearing the same necklace as Otrud, and her confession near the end, which ties up one of opera's major plotlines, needs to be more precisely realized both visually and in the translation. The ending looks great, but it hardly does what Wagner specifically intended it to do. Luckily, Simon Mills comes through with some truly exquisite lighting, notably at Lohengrin's initial appearance in Act I, and at the end of Act II, where a glorious sunbeam streams through the open doors of what we can only assume is the cathedral. These moments are truly magical and representative of what the opera is all about.
It is further testament to the quality of the singing, acting and playing throughout the opera that it overcomes some directorial hiccups. If these singers and orchestra were given the chance to perform Lohengrin in a staging that kept to Wagner's original conception, even if that conception were transported to a different epoch, this would be a rendition for ages.
Marcus Karl Maroney