If anyone ever advised Plácido Domingo that running an opera company might be an easy and well-oiled undertaking, last week’s events around his West Coast branch – also known as Los Angeles Opera – were surely enough to set him straight. His new season, his first actually as the company’s head and decision-maker, began smoothly enough, with the triumphant Pique Dame as previously noted. Then the skies opened.
On September 9 the London Sunday Times ran a doom’n’gloom article about the company’s future, citing unrest among the notoriously parsimonious board of directors over Domingo’s exuberant spending – specifically the George Lucas–designed Ring slated for 2003 and rumored with a $45 million budget encumbrance. “Not true,” responded a company spokesman, but the clouds thickened the following Wednesday with the sudden resignation of executive director Ian White-Thomson after little more than a year on the job.
That act was curiously timed; it came a day after New York City’s terrorist attack, whose impact included a wholesale shuffling of performing schedules worldwide. The company’s first Lohengrin was scheduled for that Wednesday but cancelled; Kent Nagano, the company’s incoming principal conductor, was marooned in Berlin. By Saturday, when the Lohengrin actually took place, Nagano had made his way back to Los Angeles in a zigzag trajectory by plane and car, and the opera company’s board chairman had picked up the dropped reins pending a search for a replacement.
Eventually, however, the skies cleared; the new Lohengrin – only the third Wagnerian foray in the company’s 16 years –also became its first real triumph in that repertory. The best news of all was that the glory belonged in large measure to Nagano’s firm hand in his newly created post. Wagner’s music had previously been accorded short shrift in the local repertory, and the lack of a firm conducting hand had frequently foredoomed some of the best-intended productions in the past. Both problems have been resonantly renounced in the company’s first mountings in the new Placido Domingo regime.
Everything worked. Immensely aided by Alan Burrett’s stark, intense lighting, In his company debut, actor/stage director Maximilian Schell deployed his onstage forces in a a mounting dramatic line of terror, menace and ultimate redemption. Painter Yevgeny Lysyk’s projected designs, seen previously at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, created a haunting if eclectic atmosphere, medieval with arresting contemporary overtones, as if half a dozen Cologne Cathedral facades had somehow become woven into a neon factory. Lohengrin’s famous Swan, a stumbling block to many stage designers in the past, this time took the form of a gigantic birdlike construction midstage, bathed in fantastical, dazzling light.
Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh was the Lohengrin, clarion-voiced and acceptably heroic in stature; Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was an Elsa of heartbreaking purity and melancholy; as Telramund, baritone Tom Fox added one more item to his impressive scrapbook of villains. Only the veteran Eva Marton, an aging soprano cast in a role where the dark menace of a true mezzo-soprano is ordained, seemed outclassed by her writhing, slithering music.
It didn’t take much beyond the first shimmering chords of Wagner’s much-beloved opera to sense the company launched into a new era in orchestral discipline and tone control. Throughout the famously broad and eloquent – if occasionally posterior-threatening — expanse of Wagnerian rhetoric the strength of Nagano’s command was clearly apparent. At the final curtain calls, even among the generally splendid singers and the beaming Max Schell, Nagano earned — and deserved — the most tumultuous cheers.