Houston Grand Opera
By JOHN DeMERS
I have traditionally deferred to Mark Twain on two subjects besides the twists and turns in the Mississippi River: the value of exercise and the operas of Richard Wagner.
On the first subject, I’ve always quoted Twain whenever (which was often) somebody suggested I needed to exercise. The man from Hannibal said he never exercised, since he couldn’t see “any advantage in being tired.” And, whenever someone said I should go to a Wagner opera, I quoted Twain’s goofy, backhanded compliment that the German composer was “better than he sounds.” Turns out, when I finally got around to trying, the author was dead wrong about exercise. And after seeing Houston Grand Opera’s four-hour production of Lohengrin that finished its run yesterday afternoon, I’m almost ready to admit he was wrong about Wagner too.
Lohengrin is a Teutonic spin on the Holy Grail legend of the Middle Ages, the same wild yet irresistible cauldron of belief that gave us King Arthur and yes, eventually, The Da Vinci Code. The Grail is in our bloodstream, as anyone who watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will understand completely. You simply can’t be a hero without running up against the Grail sooner or later, and hopefully claiming its power (and unblinking moral austerity) as your own.
From all evidence at the Wortham Center, HGO had to do two things before tackling its first Wagner since Tannhauser back in 2001: build up the orchestra and build up the chorus. I’m here to tell you that both have been built up, magnificently.
Much was made before Lohengrin (a co-production with Geneva Opera) of this being music director Patrick Summers’ first experience conducting Wagner. Turns out, Summers pulled together no fewer than 80 musicians for the outing – which sounds like a helluva lot. Indeed, it sounded like a helluva a lot, whether the orchestra was playing the familiar “Here Comes the Bride” Wedding March from the start of Act III (I got the jitters just hearing that thing again), or the stirring orchestral music the Beatles once chose to introduce the Austria section of their movie Help!
If there is a pecking order among conductors, with opera conductors feeling like second-class citizens alongside symphony conductors – and I’m sure there is – then Summers is a second-class citizen no longer. He has now officially conducted a symphony, simply one that had a whole bunch of people singing along from time to time.
I’m less surprised by the “improvement” in the HGO Chorus under Richard Bado, because I’ve always thought they were wonderful. Lohengrin spends a lot of time with the chorus commenting on things – mostly, it’s downright Greek. But in terms of singing, acting or (this being opera) just standing around, HGO’s chorus has never looked or sounded more full, more accomplished. Their significance to the plot, whether as the army Lohengrin is about to lead into battle or The People from whom he withholds his Grail-inspired true identity, makes us pay attention where attention is due.
The stars of HGO’s Lohengrin – apart from the orchestra and the chorus, that is – were first-rate, especially New Zealand’s Simon O’Neill in the title role. During the past three decades of opera, the dark, murky, emotive tones of Placido Domingo have come to rule the tenor roost, with most of his ilk proving unable to echo Domingo’s ringing top notes. No problem for O’Neill on that score. As is so often the case with the German language, the word “heldentenor” sounds as strong, as soaring as it’s meant to be. And soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was perfect as Lohengrin’s love interest, Elsa of Brabant, hailing from a section of Europe now known exclusively for its potatoes. Richard Paul Fink and Christine Goerke shined as the opera’s Boris and Natasha (I never pass up a solid Bullwinkle reference), especially Goerke as Lady Macbeth with a German accent. Gunther Groissbock was appropriately regal as King Henry.
So yes, Lohengrin was played and sung magnificently. And yes, as drama it “played” like wildfire, with tons of emotions spewing right and left. It was, all the same, a large HGO mistake to reset the production into something resembling modern times – a mistake verging on insanity. Sure, the plays of Shakespeare get this done to them all the time, and they almost always work, no matter what the set, no matter what the costumes. But watching the sad progression of sets and costumes in this particular Lohengrin, I came to understand something rather clearly.
In nearly all Shakespeare – comedies, tragedies and even so-called histories – what drives the story, the emotional impact, is something not in the past at all but happening right in front of us. Here and now. Something human, timeless, eternal. With Wagner, on the other hand – or certainly with Lohengrin – what drives the story and motivates the characters is something ancient, or at least medieval. Something that doesn’t happen or even make sense anymore.
First, this particular “reset button” means the armies gathered around Lohengrin look like a convention of Soviet Bloc border guards, circa 1971. Second, it means that Lohengrin and Elsa get to spend their wedding night in a too-shining bright box that resembles the set from a still-to-be-written Neil Simon comedy. A sequel to Plaza Suite, probably called Motel 6 Suite. Tom Bodet insists: It could happen.
Most importantly, however, the change means that ancient things lost in ancient times – not merely honor and chivalry but superstition, the war between gods and goddesses, and even trial by combat (which plays a pivotal role in the plot) – are forced into a modern world that no doubt would have a government, a currency and a bank, even a military hierarchy and a legal system. No one in such a world would seek the final truth by saying, “Okay guys, here are two really big swords – now fight it out!”
Lohengrin is a magnificent and altogether mystical achievement, by Wagner and now by HGO. No one should ever force a Knight of the Grail to sing anything while wearing a New Jersey wedding tuxedo with a silly white flower in the lapel.
Photo by Felix Sanchez: HGO Chorus does Les Mis in Lohengrin