Two major deficiencies in the L.A. Opera’s first 16 years were handsomely tended to with the company’s delayed premiere of “Lohengrin” this past weekend — postponed from the previous Wednesday by the week’s tragic events. Richard Wagner’s music had previously been accorded short shrift in the local repertory, and the lack of a firm conducting hand had frequently foredoomed some of the best-intended productions in the past. Both problems have been resonantly renounced in the company’s first two mountings in the new Placido Domingo regime.
The new firm hand belonged to Kent Nagano in his debut as the company’s first-ever principal conductor, and it didn’t take much beyond the first shimmering chords of Wagner’s much-beloved opera to sense a new era in orchestral discipline and tone control. Throughout the famously broad and eloquent — if occasionally posterior-threatening — expanse of Wagnerian rhetoric, the strength of Nagano’s command was clearly apparent. At the final curtain calls, even among the generally splendid singers and the actor-turned-stage-director Maximilian Schell, Nagano earned the most tumultuous cheers.
Everything worked. Immensely aided by Alan Burrett’s stark, intense lighting, Schell deployed his onstage forces in a mounting dramatic line of terror, menace and ultimate redemption. Painter Yevgeny Lysyk’s projected designs, seen previously at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, created a haunting medieval atmosphere, as if half a dozen Cologne Cathedral facades had somehow become interwoven. Lohengrin’s famous Swan, a stumbling block to many stage designers in the past, this time took the form of a gigantic birdlike construction midstage, bathed in fantastical, dazzling light.
Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh was the Lohengrin, clarion-voiced and acceptably heroic in stature; Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was an Elsa of heartbreaking purity and melancholy; as Telramund, baritone Tom Fox added one more item to his impressive scrapbook of villains. Only the veteran Eva Marton, an aging soprano cast in a role where the dark menace of a true mezzo-soprano is ordained, seemed outclassed by the writhing, slithering music.
With the previous week’s “Queen of Spades” and now this “Lohengrin,” both produced on a performance level not often attained by the company in its last few years, the L.A. Opera may be on a roll. Even so, there was a menacing rumbling in the distance.
Earlier in the week an article in the London Sunday Times sounded a tone of gloom ‘n’ doom, noting that some of the company’s board members had begun to view with alarm artistic director Domingo’s heavy-spending plans — most of all his plans for Wagner’s towering “Ring” cycle in George Lucas’ multimedia conception.
An opera company spokesman fired off a response denying the allegations. Three days after the London article, however the company’s executive director, Ian White-Thomson, suddenly resigned. Nobody has ever claimed that running an opera company is in any way easy.