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Entertainment & Arts

Commentary: How two top directors are teaching Europe the L.A. School of Opera

Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant) and the choir in “Lohengrin.” Yuval Sharon has revived his production at the Bayreuth Festival.
Yuval Sharon has revived his production of “Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Camilla Nylund, left, portrays Elsa in a study of power dynamics.
(Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuth Festival)

Thanks to Silicon Valley and the entertainment industry, California, we all know, has become the engineer of societal, political and economic conduct nearly everywhere. We give the marching orders. We have the unmatched resources for change. We also have, in Los Angeles, perhaps the two artists best equipped to reveal what this means in that uniquely personal, probing and universal manner of opera.

What we don’t have in California are the resources or, apparently, will for that to happen on a grand, operatic scale. Instead, Peter Sellars and Yuval Sharon rely on the goodwill of traditional Europe at the two greatest summer opera festivals.

Here in Mozart’s birthplace, the most prominent production of this summer’s Salzburg Festival has been Sellars’ “Idomeneo,” which uses Mozart’s first mature opera to direct our attention toward the ocean and the catastrophe brewing within our waters.

At the same time, 225 miles away at the Bayreuth Festival, the Wagnerian shrine in Germany, Sharon has revived his production of “Lohengrin.” Having opened the festival last year, the production has been somewhat revised to more clearly convey how easily and disastrously we fall for technological band-aid solutions to cover up our own failings.

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To see these productions back to back revealed not only how much L.A. has developed into an individual and leading voice in operatic thinking, but also how provincial (or is it afraid?) we are about taking advantage of it. I happened to attend their final performances of the summer, “Lohengrin” Sunday and “Idomeneo” on Monday. But they’re neither gone nor forgotten: “Lohengrin” has just been released on video and “Idomeneo” was filmed, and perhaps if we pester Sony enough, it will be out soon. Some things can’t wait.

“Idomeneo” cast members, from left: Jonathan Lemalu, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang and Russell Thomas.
Peter Sellars’ production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” is at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. The cast includes, from left, Jonathan Lemalu, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang and Russell Thomas.
(Ruth Walz / Salzburg Festival)

Invited to give the keynote address of this year’s Salzburg Festival, the 99th, Sellars called on children to talk to their parents and on parents to listen to their children. “Our generation,” he concluded, “has been the generation of empire builders and consumers. It is time to welcome the generation of creators, activists, repairers, restorers and healers.”

“Idomeneo” is the only Mozart opera Sellars has restaged. His original production at Glyndebourne, in England, 16 years ago, was topical. He controversially alluded to the Iraq war. This time, with the invaluable help of conductor Teodor Currentzis, who ignites every single gesture in Mozart’s score with a kind of life force, Sellars takes a more expansive and deeper, namely oceanic, approach.

Idomeneo keeps from drowning in a terrible storm at sea only by agreeing to sacrifice to the god Neptune the first person he meets on shore. That person turns out to be his son, Idamante. To punish Idomeneo for his inevitable attempts to evade the bargain, Neptune sends a sea monster to devastate the population of Crete.

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In “Idomeneo,” Mozart lets us listen to the ocean, and for Sellars, this becomes a warning that our oceans are again angry. Climate change has altered their form, and plastics have toxified their substance. This production is in the Felsenreitschule, a former riding stable turned into a theater shaped like a Greek amphitheater and equipped with vibrant acoustics. The set by George Tsypin is an ever-present collection of plastic globules of various sizes and shapes, the biggest ones becoming the man-eating monster.

“Idomeneo” at the Salzburg Festival
Set designer George Typsin puts the “Idomeneo” cast in a plastic-clogged ocean.
(Ruth Walz / Salzburg Festival)

Opera in the 18th century required a love interest. Ilia, a Trojan princess given an effervescent beauty by soprano Ying Fang, falls in love with her captor, Idamante, the vibrant mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy. He, though, is betrothed to the emotionally damaged Greek princess Elettra, sung by a grippingly dramatic Nicole Chevalier.

Sellars asks all for never-ending self-examination. No one knows how or where to show love. All care for the other but are paralyzed by their own suffering, and none more than Russell Thomas’ haunted Idomeneo. In the synopsis of the plot that Sellars wrote for the program book, he refers to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Suffering is life, but all of it must be transcended.

Neptune allows Idomeneo to cede the throne to Idamante and Ilia. In typical productions, a rejected Elettra goes off raving mad and kills herself. Here she remains sadly in Idomeneo’s affection if not loved. Nonetheless, abandoned, her body is consumed and torn apart by the toxicity of the ocean in an aria of such power nothing really can follow it.

So Mozart ends “Idomeneo” not with a celebratory chorus (and Currentzis’ Perm Opera chorus is a major attraction) but with speechlessness, and a seemingly anti-climactic courtly ballet. Sellars ends his production with dances by the Samoan-born Lemi Ponifasio. Elettra’s lifeless body remains onstage danced around in fast foot-stomping steps by Arikitau Tantau, a native dancer from the Pacific island of Kiribati that is being inundated by rising sea levels.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, which plays with most musicians standing throughout the three-hour opera, made even these slight dances sound momentous. At the end, a Hawaiian dancer in ceremonial dress, Brittne Mahealani Fuimaono, tenderly lifts Elettra as though raising the dead with heartbreaking yet hope-giving grace.

“Idomeneo” director Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival
Director Peter Sellars, second from the right, at the “Idomeneo” curtain call with, from left: Russell Thomas, Ying Fang, Paula Murrihy, Nicole Chevalier and Brittne Mahealani Fuimaono.
(Ruth Walz / Salzburg Festival)

Bayreuth is a very different festival than Salzburg. Wagner built this theater for his operas, and only his operas are performed every summer, attended with a ritual religiosity by devotees who plan their pilgrimage years in advance.

Dress is still mainly formal, even in hot weather. Mystification is the business of the Festspielhaus. The orchestra and conductor work in a hidden pit. The acoustics are all-encompassing. There are no surtitles and the program book forgoes plot synopses. You come knowing well Wagnerian scripture. Your free will belongs to the cult.

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But Wagner also meant for theater to involve all the arts, and for many years this has also been a home for experimental, even radical and irreverent productions. The traditional audience boos the director but comes anyway for the music.

While it would be difficult to think of two more different composers than the playful, heavenly, democratic Mozart and the imperiously self-consumed Wagner, there are similarities in their operas. Both composers have a strong sense the environment, the necessity for love and an understanding of the frailty of mortals (and, in Wagner’s case, gods).

The “Lohengrin” production caused a certain amount of bewilderment last year. But as the founder of the L.A. opera company the Industry, Sharon — like Sellars, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant — has shown himself to be a true Wagnerian entranced by the concept of opera as a confluence of all the arts operating on a grand scale.

The Bayreuth assignment, though, was complicated. Sharon was invited only after the original director had dropped out and the painters Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy had developed a concept for sets and costumes. From all appearances, Sharon took an already complicated approach and added his own philosophical context.

The production is not especially easy to follow. Lohengrin is no longer the white knight of the Holy Grail who rides in on a swan to save Elsa, falsely accused of murdering her younger brother and heir to the throne of Brabant. Lohengrin is an electrician come to electrify an ahistorical, possibly post-apocalyptic, community that has gone dark. His sword is shaped like a lightning bolt.

The deal is that Elsa is not supposed to ask who he is and he’ll marry her and be the people’s savior. She’s smitten but asks anyway, and as punishment he leaves her and Brabant. Not knowing her place, Elsa has ruined everything and now, seemingly like Elettra in “Idomeneo,” has no reason to live. But thanks to Wagner’s magical realism, her younger brother reappears. He’d been subjected to a magic spell and, as in “Idomeneo,” we’re left with the hopes of idealistic young new leaders.

“Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival
Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin, with his lightning bolt, at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.
(Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuth Festival)

Of course, Sharon and his design team are not buying this kind of patriarchy. For them, Lohengrin comes to Brabant to empower empire builders and consumers. Elsa and her brother, Gottfried, are the generation of creators, activists, repairers, restorers. The people of Brabant are sturdy town folk, stodgily dressed like something out of a 16th century Flemish painting. The king sports a cut-out beard. The men have the wings of insects on their backs.

The set would work for a Frankenstein movie, and Elsa’s hairdo looks like it would be fetching for the monster’s bride. But the backdrops are glorious paintings, subtly lighted.

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Lohengrin arrives in his work clothes to turn the power back on. He clearly has visions of grandeur. What Elsa needs, however, is not a hero but an actual fixer.

Musically, Wagner already makes sure that on their wedding night everything that can go wrong in bed does. In this production there is what looks like a large electric phallus to which Lohengrin ties up Elsa and then sits back and watches impotently. Wouldn’t you want to know who this weirdo is?

And more to point, shouldn’t we all want to know where our electricity comes from, and what our supposed technological fixers who act like heroes are up to?

Black and white sometimes reverse in Sharon’s world. Ortrud, evil in the opera for putting doubt about Lohengrin in Elsa’s mind, in fact inspires her to take control of the situation.

Gottfried returns a little grass-covered green man, and he and Elsa are left, I’m guessing, to restore the earth.

Unlike with Sellars’ wholly integrated “Idomeneo” production, though, Sharon was left with the sum of disjoint parts, including an ever-changing and not entirely sympathetic-seeming cast. Annette Dash replaced Anna Netrebko in the last two performances and never got a chance to work with Sharon. Even so, she did an admirable job Sunday of convincingly portraying a both strong and feminine Elsa.

“Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival
Michael Gniffke in wings and Camilla Nylund as Elsa in Yuval Sharon’s “Lohengrin.”
(Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuth Festival)

Tenor Piotr Beczala’s Lohengrin was strongly sung if lacking nuance. Elena Pankratova dominated excellently as an Ortrud worth paying attention to, and Tomasz Konieczny made her husband, Friedrich, who loses a battle to Lohengrin, an unusually effective tragic figure.

The real dominating presence, however, was the figure you never saw until the curtain call. Hidden away in the pit, Bayreuth’s music director, Christian Thielemann, oozed out of the orchestra remarkably painterly detail in an almost hallucinatory slow performance.

On its own, the orchestra in this hall can become an aural drug. No matter how much you might question Wagner’s intentions dramatically, his music, especially in the hands of a master like Thielemann, who is revered in Wagner circles, the musical intent remains inviolable. Here Lohengrin’s farewell was of such breathtaking grandiosity that it undercut what should have been Elsa’s and Gottfried’s triumph, as if to say the Greens should not get too smug. Lohengrin might just be back someday to turn the power back on, and this will start all over again.

No matter. In the end, Sellars and Sharon practice a new progressive approach to opera as an agent for societal transformation and environmental activism that goes far beyond the usual directorial updating of opera beloved in Europe, too often for little more than show-business pizzazz. Can we go so far as to call this a Los Angeles school of opera? From this side of the Atlantic, that’s where the big ideas seem to be coming from.


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