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Another Angle on Wagner’s Lohengrin in Chicago

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Amber Wagner.





Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
8 March 2011

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Set and Costume Designer: John Napier
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Chorus Master: Donald Nally

Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Amber Wagner
Ortrud – Michaela Schuster
Telramund – Greer Grimsley
King Heinrich – Georg Zeppenfeld
The Herald – Lester Lynch

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lohengrin is a testament to the major problem of many American opera productions today. On the one hand, conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ formidable interpretation rivalled the greatest in Wagnerian history, but on the other hand, director Elijah Moshinsky’s lackluster staging rivalled your average high-school production. The irony of hearing some of the world’s greatest Wagnerian voices while seeing some of its most awkward blocking is nothing new to regular attendees of the American Wagner scene. That said, the Lyric might have done well to present the evening in concert form.

The epic got off to a promising start with a stellar Prelude to Act I. Sir Andrew made it a point to hang on the more abstract chords and tone clusters, stretching the most modern sounds just a hair out of tempo. The results were thrilling: the music shimmered with a sound more resonant of 20th-century works than of high German Romanticism. At moments, Sir Andrew seemed to have found Barber, or even Scaring, in Wagner.

But the magic of the Prelude came to an abrupt halt with the rise of the curtain. The set and costume design, by the eminent John Napier (probably most remembered for his glitzy sci-fi sets in Jacko’s 3-D adventure, Captain EO), evoked less the primitive world of Medieval Belgium than the cardboard cut-outs of Monty Python. For instance, the major set piece was a portable totem pole which resembled a rolled up beach mat set on a bird house and capped with a Georgia O’Keefe bovine skull. Especially strange was the use of multiple scrims that came in and out for no intelligible reason whatsoever. These scrims operated like spatial dividers, imposing a superfluous geometry on the stage. The only time they served an actual purpose was for Lohengrin’s entrance. This infamous stage direction calls for Lohengrin to enter “on a swan.” Historically, directors have opted for swan boats, swan puppets or even a team of brawny swan-costumed stage-hands. Mr. Moshinsky disappointed audiences with an unimaginative swan projection that left Lohengrin with a rather pitiful entrance from the side. To boot, the stage floor was blanketed in what looked like white pillow stuffing (molted swan feathers?) which clung to Botha’s mumu-like costume. Moshinsky’s lack of imagination resurfaced in the famous Act III Bridal Chorus where choristers lay a large red cloth across the stage  — coincidentally, the exact same gesture used just last month in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Short Shakespeare!” production of Macbeth.

Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Fortunately, Moshinsky’s staging could not overshadow the magnificent cast, led by Johan Botha in the title role. Botha’s extensive familiarity with the part coupled with his versatile tenor compensated for the lack of visual story-telling. His voice glistened as much on the gentle high notes as it shook the theater in the more dramatic passages. His bold “In fernem Land” drew audible gasps from the orchestra-level seats.

Johan Botha as Lohengrin (above) and Greer Grimsley as Telramund. Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Greer Grimsley sang an effective Telramund, though his villainous spouse Ortrud, sung by Michaela Schuster, was less successful. Schuster, normally a solid dramatic voice, sounded fatigued by the first act and forced by the third. It didn’t help that Moshinsky left her to flounder aimlessly about the stage at most points, shifting from one clichéd diva pose to the next.

The true star of the evening, however, was the aptly named Amber Wagner. This was Ms. Wagner’s debut as Elsa and she met the challenge with aplomb. While Emily Magee sang Elsa for the first five performances, Ms Wagner was scheduled for the final two nights of the run,. She channeled her nervous energy into a thrilling display of controlled acting and vocal mastery. She shared the stage gracefully with her co-stars, especially in her Act II duet with Ortrud and the lovers’ “Das süße Lied verhallt” in Act III. Wagner and Botha’s lilting high notes charged the scene with a chemistry rare to most Wagnerian couples. This may have been the result of Ms. Wagner’s reserved acting style. Hers was an intimate performance that lent Elsa a touching naïveté and made her final outburst and collapse all the more devastating.

Unfortunately, Ms. Wagner’s final reaction to the return of her brother — executed in a rare moment of clever staging using Botha’s girth — and Lohengrin’s exit was lost when a scrim descended over her. This left the final notes of Wagner’s score to describe Lohengrin’s departure and not Elsa’s ruin. The grandiose music clashed brazenly with the staging which was no less awkward than Lohengrin’s original entrance. With no swan to fly him away, the knight departed un-majestically off the side, again with clusters of molted swan feathers clinging to his hem.

The cast's curtain call. Photo: Magda Krance.
Amy Stebbins

About Amy Stebbins

Amy Stebbins graduated from Harvard University in 2007 with an B.A. in History and Literature. Her Honors thesis examined the ideological and structural underpinnings of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble as a model for The National Theatre in London (1962-1973). Amy moved to Berlin in 2007 as a Fulbright Scholar, during which time she worked with René Pollesch, Sebastian Baumgarten, Stefan Pucher, Chris Kondek and Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne and Maxim Gorki Theater. Her subsequent work as a director, producer, dramaturge, video-artist and performer took her to Berlin, Brussels, New York, Paris, Boston and London. Amy’s academic work deals in part with practical intersections of music, performance and film; she is also fascinated by the dynamic relationship between art and politics.

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