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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Opera Review
This Lohengrin is dark, very dark. Set in a bombed-out church which has been improvised as a field hospital during the last days of World War I, Richard Wagner's 1848 opera combines the miraculous with the everyday. Under Lydia Steier's sensitive direction, it is bleak and chilling, relieved only by Wagner's glorious music
According to the program notes, a soldier dies during a leg amputation. He reappears later with an other-worldly silver leg as Lohengrin, Knight of the Grail. Dressed in drab clothes, he is played by an overweight Ben Heppner who makes us forget everything else by the majestic clarity of his voice.
He heads an international cast at the Los Angles Opera, under the exuberant direction of James Conlon. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski, who with Heppner makes her L.A. Opera debut, is a talented actress as well as a superb singer and plays Elsa, the innocent girl who prays for a knight to save her from the trumped-up charge of fratricide. James Johnson does a stellar job both as actor and vocalist as Elsa's jealous rival Friedrich. His sorceress wife Ortrud, dynamically sung by Dolora Zajick, has bewitched Gottfried, Elsa's younger brother, and plots Elsa's downfall. King Heinrich is played by the amazingly tall Kristinn Sigmundsson, whose booming voice holds the stage.
Into this potpourri comes Lohengrin, not in the traditional swan boat but limping on his silver leg through the wounded. He's a stolid knight with but one request to make of Elsa - not to ask his name or origin. Ortrud slyly plays the naive Elsa like a violin. Think the Snake in the Garden of Eden. It's reminiscent of so many stories where the hero's identity is a secret until the Pandora's Box is opened at the end. With Friedrich's help, an attack is launched on Lohengrin. He defeats the intruders but, heartsick at Elsa's defection, he reveals his true name. One can only assume that young Elsa, blind as to the outcome of her query, is so tormented by Ortrud and Freidrich that she gives way to their pleas.
With a four-hour running time, Wagner's mighty myth sustains through the sweetness and power of its music. No spiritual imagery obscures the stark scene. The revolving church set, designed by Dirk Hofacker, conveys the desolation of war-torn Europe.
Act Three begins with the famous Wedding March. With its delicate phrasing, it sounds fresh and new. James Conlon's direction is astute, exuberant and passionate. Wagner would have been proud!