The music's the thing in HGO's Lohengrin

Patrick Summers, Christine Goerke
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

Transcendent music, impeccably realized, proves the invincible strength of Houston Grand Opera's new Lohengrin, which opened to an enthusiastic reception Friday night at Wortham Center.

In his Wagner debut, music director Patrick Summers guides a soulful reading that unleashes the score's power and encompasses its breadth, from ethereal (as in the Act 1 Prelude) to exhilarating (the Act 3 Prelude.) Simon O'Neill's supremely confident Lohengrin heads a fine group of principals well equipped for the work's vocal demands, with particular standouts in Adrianne Pieczonka's beleaguered yet regal heroine and Christine Goerke's exuberantly evil villainess.

In this co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève, where it premiered in 2007, director Daniel Slater and set-and-costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins eschew traditional trappings of medieval legend, instead placing the action in some unidentified militarized state of the mid-20th century.

With the hero attired in a leather greatcoat rather than knightly gear — and no glimpse of his boat-towing swan, either — some may miss the storybook glamor. This production stirred controversy at its premiere, perhaps because some uniforms suggest the fascist powers that have been linked to Wagner's theories.

Yet framing the tale in a more recent period makes it more real, stressing the power struggles and political scheming that motivate the action, rather than the ultimate revelations of magical origins.

Ambitious Friedrich of Telramund and his even more ambitious wife, Ortrud, seek to seize power in Brabant. They do so by accusing Elsa, daughter of the former ruler, of killing her younger brother, Gottfried, the rightful heir, who has disappeared. Neighboring King Heinrich, who has come seeking soldiers to help deter invading forces, agrees to serve as judge at Elsa's “trial” — consisting of Telramund's combat with any knight who will champion Elsa. No one volunteers, until Lohengrin, the champion of whom Elsa has dreamed, appears on the horizon.

Lohengrin vanquishes Telramund, thus saving Elsa. Cheered by the populace, the mysterious stranger agrees to become their protector and lead them in battle, and to marry Elsa. There is but one condition: Elsa must never ask his name or origin. Realizing that maintaining anonymity is the key to the stranger's power, Ortrud contrives to inject doubt in Elsa's mind, so that she will ask the forbidden question.

Slater's production aptly aligns the visuals with the music — as when the Act 1 Prelude's mighty crescendo occurs just as Lohengrin dons a medallion, symbol of his mission and duty. Comparable on a larger scale is the thrilling Act 1 finale, the music soaring as we see Lohengrin carried aloft after vanquishing Telramund, then joined with the enthralled Elsa, as the thwarted villains fume.

O'Neill's golden tenor, with its easeful command and sweetness of tone, projects Lohengrin's superhuman nobility. That otherworldly goodness makes him a tad remote at first, but he rises to full power and expressiveness in his Act 3 scene with Elsa and his subsequent solo of legendary revelation.

Pieczonka's radiant soprano conveys Elsa's purity and dignity. She convincingly enacts the heroine's troubled state — first as woman wrongly accused, then as one increasingly tormented by her husband's secret. She is joyous celebrating Lohengrin as her redeemer; righteous challenging wicked Ortrud.

As Telramund, Richard Paul Fink hurls his false accusations with the right edge of harsh arrogance and cruelty, and later is pitiable lamenting his disgrace. Wagner specialist Günther Groissböck's authoritative bass, forceful delivery and sheer gravitas make him a superior King Heinrich.

Yet it is Goerke who sets the stage ablaze as the tirelessly scheming Ortrud — the most volatile role. The power of her voice, her fiery rage and intense determination make her a memorable embodiment of evil. In any medium, nothing boosts a show’s potency like a juicy villainess.

The HGO Chorus, prepared by Richard Bado, performs with its customary excellence — though here, that’s a bigger factor than usual since Lohengrin’s choral “role” is the largest in the active repertoire.

Despite Wagner's ideal of unifying all arts in a new form of music-drama, the music itself is the predominant factor in Lohengrin. Much as the staging and design support them, it is chiefly the orchestral, vocal and choral work that make this production a grand event of which HGO can be justifiably proud.