The reputation and future of Los Angeles Opera, 15 years old, will not rest on any single opera or project, no matter how grand or symbolic its intentions. But enough rests on its new production of "Lohengrin" to make it a watershed for the company. The fact that its first performance, Saturday afternoon at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was a resounding success provides exactly the kind of credence that Placido Domingo needs to back his rhetoric about making Los Angeles an operatic capital.
Opera companies are often measured, justifiably or not, by their Wagner, and that has been as true in Los Angeles as most other places. A production of "Tristan and Isolde," with striking production design by David Hockney, helped put the 2-year-old company on the map but gave it a sense of local identity. Its second go at Wagner, "The Flying Dutchman," in 1996, designed and directed by Julie Taymor, also attempted something new theatrically. That it was not well received was a blow, and perhaps a lesson, since one problem was the company's unwillingness to entirely embrace its director's vision.
"Lohengrin" is only Los Angeles Opera's third Wagner production, but as everyone in the opera world now knows, the company is hoping to create a Wagnerian spectacle like no other when it finally attempts the composer's "Ring" cycle at the Shrine Auditorium in 2003, with Hollywood-style special effects. Given the company's spotty accomplishments in recent seasons, there has been understandable questioning, from inside the company and out, about whether the company has the artistic resources to pull this off or whether the whole project is little more than a huge, gimmicky publicity scheme.
Among those questions, a key one has concerned the conductor and orchestra. Now we know more. "Lohengrin" is Kent Nagano's first outing as the company's new principal conductor, and it is his first time conducting Wagner in the opera house. And from the very first seconds in the orchestral prelude, the auditorium dark, the silvery A-major chords shimmering in the high strings, everything seemed new.
Wagner wanted nothing less than that this prelude exude, through music, the mystical sensation of being in the presence of the Holy Grail, as if it could pour out "exquisite odors, like streams of gold, ravishing the senses." Nagano, reasonably enough, settled for intense, focused beauty of tone and alert attention to detail. And throughout the long opera, his eloquent leadership never faltered, especially as he found wonderment in transparent orchestral textures.
But most important was the sheer excitement that Nagano generated, through a combination of lyricism and thrilling momentum. Among sensations practically unknown to Los Angeles Opera audiences was brass playing that took your breath away.
The actor Maximilian Schell directed, and that represented another of Domingo's artistic intentions--developing a closer connection between opera and Hollywood. Schell's production is grim and intelligent, with a strong dose of brutal realism bringing dramatic point to Wagner's mythic drama.
The medieval town of Antwerp, where Saxons and Brabants unite to fight Hungarian invaders, is a 20th century battleground, designed by Dirk Hofacker after a concept by Yevgeny Lysyk. The landscape is made of harsh metal. The lighting, by Alan Burrett, is cold and white. Mist hangs ever present in the back. The Saxons are soldiers with shaved heads in Fascist uniform. The Brabants are wild tribesmen. Lohengrin, the knight of the Grail who arrives on a swan to save Elsa, a maiden in distress, appears in a flash of green strobe light; his swan is a large metal obelisk with wings.
Exactly what all this stands for is not spelled out. But something ominous lingers over this mystical drama, no longer just a simplistic story of good versus evil. And that attitude is carefully carried out in Schell's unusually realistic and compelling direction.
At the heart of the opera is the fact that Elsa can only rise to the heights of glorious womanhood if she trusts blindly in Lohengrin, but her mind is poisoned by the machinations of Frederick of Telramund and his pernicious wife, Ortrud. Elsa asks forbidden questions, and all is spoiled. As Schell directs the drama, we see human nature at work.
The Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka is a complex Elsa, transfixed by her visions but also insisting on a relationship with Lohengrin built on trust. Lohengrins are never very complex, and Gosta Winbergh, the Swedish tenor, appears to be like any other at first, but he too seems to realize that even a holy mission may not be as straightforward as he expected. Both are satisfyingly ardent singers with generously lyrical voices.