L.A. Opera’s new production of “Lohengrin” shifts time but not place in updating Wagner’s medieval fairy tale to a WWI battlefield. (Much of ancient Brabant is occupied by modern Belgium.) The result, helmed by Lydia Steier, is one of the prettiest productions from the company in years. It’s also dramatically effective — so long as auds don’t dwell on its inconsistencies and anachronisms.
That shouldn’t be too hard given the moody allure of this captivating staging, in which Mark McCullough’s subtle lighting amplifies the impact of Dirk Hofacker’s meticulously detailed sets and costumes. Yet purists will be right to quibble with such drastic changes as Steier’s decision to make Lohengrin a battlefield amputee — his right leg replaced with a steel prosthesis — and her recasting of his mortal enemy, Count Friedrich of Telramund, as an army surgeon. And forget about seeing the opera’s iconic swan: There are no waterfowl in this Flanders field.
A bombed-out church, a multifaceted unit set, is the center of the action. It sits atop the company’s new high-tech turntable — a vestige of last season’s expensive “Ring” cycle. A winning cyclorama effect of wartime devastation is created when the set is spun against a panoramic background mural covering the backstage wall. There is also beauty amid the horror, frequently achieved through the use of stage snow.
But no Wagner opera is won or lost with production values; it’s the music that draws the faithful. This time the hero is not so much on the stage as in the pit, with James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s music director, delivering his finest rendition yet of a Wagner score with this company. Clearly the experience of playing Wagner’s vast “Ring” cycle has elevated this band to a new level of proficiency in such repertory. The antiphonal trumpets were an especially thrilling touch.
The singing, too, proved gratifying. Despite apprehension regarding Canadian tenor Ben Heppner’s company debut in the title role, he acquitted himself well following a shaky start. There is still bloom in his voice, even as wobble occasionally unsteadies his tone. His Elsa, the maiden Heppner’s knight comes to rescue, is Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski. Her well-tended voice can convey ample feeling, but greater freshness would have been welcome given her role as an innocent.
On the other hand, the opera’s husband-and-wife villains — American bass-baritone James Johnson’s Telramund and American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick’s Ortrud — were deliciously right. Johnson, a regular visitor to the company, has never invested more personality in a part here, his alternating anguish and arrogance touchingly heartfelt. Zajick is well known as an operatic force of nature, and she did not disappoint in her role debut as the scheming sorceress, predictably outsinging everyone else onstage.
Special mention should also be made of the L.A. Opera Chorus, which goes from strength to strength under Grant Gershon’s leadership. Here, the singers were forceful and articulate, lending welcome texture to the production.