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Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago, 5.3.2011 (JLZ).

Set and Costume Designer: John Napier

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Stage Director: Elijah Moshinsky

Chorus Master: Donald Nally

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis


The Herald: Lester Lynch

Friedrich, Count of Telramund: Greer Grimsley

King Heinrich: Georg Zeppenfeld

Elsa of Brabant: Amber Wagner

Lohengrin: Johan Botha

Ortrud: Michaela Schuster

Picture © Dan Rest

After a long absence from Lyric Opera of Chicago's repertoire, Richard Wagner's Lohengrin made a welcome return in a production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The international cast included the stellar tenor Johan Botha in the title role, and the last performances of the season featured the role debut of the young soprano Amber Wagner. The chemistry between the two singers was evident aurally, with both performers giving impeccable readings of their parts under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.

The familiar story is of the rescue of Elsa of Brabant by the Grail knight Lohengrin, whose identity must be withheld. Yet in defeating Friedrich of Telramund, who falsely accuses Elsa, Lohengrin's decision to grant repentance only opens the door for more deception as Telramund and Ortrud scheme to regain power by sowing doubts in Elsa about the nature of her savior. Elsa succumbs to the intrigue by asking the knight his name. Lohengrin then discloses his identity and explains the machinations behind the politics of Brabant. Yet he also restores to Brabant its young leader, Gottfried, whom everyone had presumed dead-and the miraculous restoration leaves Elsa in a faint at the end of the opera.

As Elsa, Ms. Wagner commands the role with technical assurance, vibrant tone and subtle use of dynamics, setting her apart from others who do not always bring these qualities to bear. Her vocal security includes the sometimes treacherous passages in her character's ecstatic music at the end of the first act, and continuing in the aria "Euch Lüften" in the opening of the second. Also in the second act, Ms. Wagner gives an equally strong reading of the duet with Ortrud, and is even more impressive in her third-act duet with Lohengrin, "Das süsse Lied." Never strident and always at ease, this portrayal of Elsa was notable for its powerful vocal characterization.

Botha's Lohengrin is equally impressive. The tenor offers a fresh and resilient tone to music that defines the nature of a Heldentenor, and his phrasing is remarkable, as well, given the demanding range of the part. More than that, Botha's ease of execution only adds to a memorable Lohengrin that should remain a standard for years to come.

In addition Georg Zeppenfeld offered a powerful King Heinrich through his resonant bass and lyrical line. As declamatory as some passages may be, Zeppenfeld continually maintained a keen focus, totally commanding the stage with his rich tone and precise diction.

As the scheming Ortrud, Michaela Schuster was effective but sometimes strained. But her interpretation of the second-act soliloquy "Entweihte Götter!" was sensitive to the text, creating a sense of foreboding. Her partner Greer Grimsley was similarly persuasive as Telramund. Both Schuster and Grimsley worked hard to give their characters depth, all the way through to the final revelations.

The entire score flowed masterfully under the direction of Sir Andrew, whose first act was very much on point, keeping the drama flowing. The more introspective second act was nicely balanced in the smaller scenes, culminating in Elsa's procession to the cathedral. Davis nicely balanced the moment of triumph while retaining the shadow only Ortrud can bring. In the final act, the familiar wedding march received a satisfying if brisk reading, with the duet between Elsa and Lohengrin balanced nicely with Lohengrin's monologue "In fernem Land"-the pacing was musically and dramatically persuasive. This was one of Davis's finest performances, and confirms the conducting strength he brings to Lyric. Yet the evening belonged to Ms. Wagner, whose outstanding depiction of a challenging heroine was one that will be recalled for years.

James L. Zychowicz



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