The mature operas of Richard Wagner (1813–1883) are total strangers to New Mexico stages. Santa Fe Opera has twice tackled The Flying Dutchman butconsistentlydodged the later masterworks. So when Opera Southwest announced three years back that it would present Lohengrin, Wagner’s most-performed title, the news was both audacious and welcome. The piece has never been produced in our state, an artistic omission comparable to doing without Hamlet.
Wagnerian performance traditions have gotten cumbersome over the years, demanding bigger houses and noisier voices. So OSW Artistic Director Anthony Barrese hit on a clever and manageable concept for a New Mexico production: reproduce the conditions of Lohengrin’s 1850 Weimar premiere under Wagner’s friend and advocate Franz Liszt (1811–1886). The venue was a smallish court theater, and the production featured leaner orchestral and choral forces than would later be customary. Nevertheless the work was a global success, becoming the Metropolitan Opera’s Wagnerian record holder: the Met has staged it, by my count, 424 times.
Which is all the more surprising because Lohengrin is arguably Wagner’s most enigmatic and pessimistic work. Adapting a 13th-century epic poem, he essentially presents two warring religions: the occult paganism of Wotan and other Northern gods, embodied by the sorceress Ortrud and her strongman dupe Telramund . . . and the Christian crusading of the Grail knights, represented by Lohengrin and Elsa, the woman he’ll rescue only for a price—that she asks no questions. The outcome? Telramund perishes in a sordid scuffle; Ortrud collapses in defeat; Elsa dies of a broken heart; Lohengrin goes away lonely and unloved. Nobody wins.
And by some cosmic irony, Opera Southwest seemed, more recently, to have been dealt a losing hand as well. Thanks to arson and water damage, OSW’s normal venue, the Journal Theater at the Hispanic Cultural Center (seats 700) became unusable just weeks before curtain time. The ensuing scramble saw the production shifted to the Cleveland High School concert hall in Rio Rancho (seats 1100). Two performances were given instead of the three originally scheduled: Friday evening, March 29, plus a Sunday matinee on March 31. I attended the latter, an astonishingly triumphant Lohengrin and vocally stronger than most you’ll view on YouTube.
With limited wing and fly space, the Cleveland venue is a music hall not a playhouse, yet OSW’s production remained a theatrical event, not a stand-and-deliver concert opera. Orchestra and conductor were upstage and discreetly lit, the chorus in the balcony above. Singers were downstage, off book, in character, and executing E. Loren Meeker’s detailed, easy-on-the-eyes staging, complete with props, business, and basic furnishings including a throne for Act 1 and framework couch for the bedroom scene. Blocking used audience entrances, the stage and house floor. The swan stayed firmly out of sight at the customer exit left.
Other theatrical assists included Erik Teague’s elegant, neo-Edwardian costumes, plus pictorial slides behind the English surtitles translating Wagner’s lyrics. Meeker occasionally deviated from the composer’s directions: Lohengrin disarms and dispatches Telramund without Elsa’s help, a quick and dirty solution to this staging challenge. And both Elsa and Ortrud are left standing at the end—softening the close and reminding us that Wagner would return to these issues, to Wotan & Co. in the Ring cycle, to the Grail knights in Parsifal.
Leading a 38-piece band in line with Lohengrin’s Weimar premiere, Barrese generated an athletic, fast-moving performance. Act 1’s accusations and intrigues had fiery intensity; Act 2’s reversals flew past with surprising speed; and the crucial bedroom scene was paced for anxiety and tension rather than lyrical dalliance. What’s more, the Cleveland hall’s quick, open acoustic continually flattered both orchestra and chorus; the famous Act 3 prelude, mainstay of symphony programs everywhere, had ample power and brilliance.
And once again it was the cast that revealed why OSW productions are instantly enjoyable: they are eager young performers who offer both stage savvy and clean, accurate singing. Act 1 got off to a running start with superb low voices—Darren Drone’s baritone round and warm as the Herald; Harold Wilson’s ringing basso making for a truly regal King Heinrich; and baritone Sean Anderson not only characterizing Telramund’s ferocity but honestly voicing it—for once all those high F-sharps were genuinely sung, not yelped. A rare pleasure.
The Elsa, too, was remarkable: Detroit soprano Michelle Johnson sprang in to cover the role, learning it in just three weeks, bringing along a voice with more body and bite than the part usually gets. Since Johnson is also a vivid, responsive actress, Elsa’s insecurities were movingly and powerfully portrayed.
Taking on Lohengrin himself, tenor Corey Bix met all the requirements—faultless legato, velvet midrange, secure top, heroic build. He’s as good as they come these days.
As for the baleful sorceress Ortrud, regularly performed with much scooping and shrieking, it’s a role so taxing even Birgit Nilsson ducked it. Mezzo Claudia Chapa lacked the ultimate hugeness but not the other necessities—she was rock-steady, dead on pitch, and a shrewd character actress, bowing amusingly when Lohengrin turns priggish in Act 2. One more insightful touch among the many distinguishing this invaluable and unforgettable production.