The biggest apparent disadvantage of reviewing for a weekly is actually a blessing in disguise. By the time a weekly reviewer sits down to write about an opening, the Big Kids at the dailies have already held forth. This means that the vast majority of readers have already gotten the official word, so we minor players can concentrate on trying to convey the nuances of what actually happened.
The official word on Seattle Opera's Lohengrin (McCaw Hall, 206-389-7676; ends Sat., Aug. 21) is that it's a triumph—of musicality, stagecraft, the works. And, in fact, the staging isn't half bad: It's the kind of evening one might experience in any of a dozen German opera houses which mount upward of a dozen such shows a season—respectable, unexceptional, just a little dull.
The physical production dates from 1994, and that show was a triumph. Ben Heppner, on the verge of international stardom, was the white knight Lohengrin, Andrea Gruber his innocent self-doomed Elsa: a couple of plus-size Wagnerian singers who, with consummate musical dramatist Herrmann Michael in the pit and director Stephen Wadsworth keeping things utterly direct and simple, managed to convince and move us even while chastely grappling on a cot center stage.
Those roles are taken this time round by Albert Bonnema and Marie Plette. Asher Fisch is conducting, and though he lacks Michael's large-scale dramatic control, he's a capable Wagnerian. But a Wagner conductor can do just so much with his orchestra; the singers have to put the show across. This is particularly true of Lohengrin. Not a heck of a lot actually happens; the drama is mostly emotional, internal, as befits a tale set in a 10th-century kingdom that still believes in trial by combat. It's a truism but still true: Lohengrin is Wagner's bel canto opera. The meaning is in the singing, not the stage action.
Seattle Opera's Lohengrin just isn't very well sung. Plette's soprano is strong and true, but it hardly changes color all night. Bonnema can handle the notes of his part, but after a while his half-throttled sound becomes unpleasant to listen to, and he seems to have no idea of phrasing, the art of tying notes together in units of significance. Likewise Greer Grimsley as the tormented bad guy Telramund: He's got a huge dark bass voice, and he uses it like a club, bludgeoning the music into submission.
The wild card in the cast is Jane Eaglen as Telramund's witch-wife, Ortrud. I was very much looking forward to hearing Eaglen, a lady who eats roles like Brünnhilde and Turandot for breakfast, sing this great dramatic role. As it turns out, her most effective moments are the quiet ones, when she's tempting Elsa to question her saintly new boyfriend's background. In the great big moments of the role—every time she raises her volume above mezzo forte, in fact—Eaglen's voice roughens up. You can't help wondering if too many Ring cycles are wearing it down.
I can put up with a good deal of coarse singing if it's in the service of the drama. I might have been able to last Saturday if stage director Wadsworth had not unaccountably sabotaged his own staging. No sooner has he set up some iconic stage picture than he sends one singer or another off on apparently aimless little trips around the stage. Everybody in the cast seems afflicted with the fidgets, usually when someone else is singing. After a while, it becomes perversely hypnotic. (There she goes. Where is she going? She doesn't seem to know herself, because here she comes back again. Doesn't she know how distracting she is? Doesn't she care that when her solo comes up, someone else is going to do the same to her?)
There are moments when you can tell why somebody's doing what they're doing, but you devoutly wish they would stop doing it immediately. There's a distracting bit of comic business between King Henry and his omnipresent page that blows focus during one of the opera's most gorgeous choral interludes. During what should be a particularly solemn moment, Lohengrin simperingly waves his bride's wreath just out of her reach, for all the world like a dog owner teasing his pet with a Frisbee. It is a fatuous, horrible, ugly moment, the more so for clearly being deliberate. If it is still there when you see the show, I suggest demanding your money back on that ground alone. Had I been paying for my ticket, I would have done so.