GENEVA - Daniel Slater's new production of "Lohengrin" wasn't necessarily vintage Wagner, but it deserves praise as a thoughtful and tasteful take on the medieval legend — and certainly none of the boos it received on opening night.
Moving a Richard Wagner opera into the 20th century immediately brings to mind the stereotype of a stage flush with images of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, after all, was a Wagner fanatic.
But Slater's production largely avoids these trappings by opting for a Soviet motif that plays on the title character's status as an outsider to 10th-century northern Europe — or, in this case, a venue that appears like Communist Party headquarters. It also works to distance the opera from the sword fights, magic swans and notions of Christian purity that were archaic even in Wagner's time.
The message, however, was lost on some spectators in the Grand Theatre de Geneve at last week's opening night who booed in response to the military costumes, functionalist architecture and complete erasure of the swan that the hero usually enters with. Apparently, the staging was seen as too Nazi-inspired.
The local Tribune de Geneve reported the protests were led by Geneva's strong Wagnerian society, which took umbrage three years ago when French director Olivier Py enlisted a pornographic film actor to add eroticism to Wagner's "Tannhaeuser."
Slater's adaptation wasn't nearly as controversial, and after Wednesday evening's fourth performance there were only cheers and scattered "Bravi" from the audience. Besides some confusing blue patches worn on some of the commoners' arms — they did seem to invoke the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Third Reich — there was little to suggest an attempted link with Germany's dark past.
"Lohengrin" begins when the German king arrives in Brabant, now Belgium, to seek out allies for a war against the heathen Hungarians. Friedrich von Telramund, a count of Brabant, accuses the innocent Elsa of killing her brother, the young regent in his care. She agrees to trial by combat and Lohengrin, the "knight of the swan," arrives to save the day.
But before he rescues her, the mysterious knight makes one condition: that Elsa never ask his name, origins or lineage. She caves in after their marriage, forcing Lohengrin to reveal himself as a knight of the holy grail, who must leave her now that his identity has become known. But as a final act of virtue, he secures the return of Elsa's brother, Gottfried, who becomes Brabant's new ruler.
The cast Wednesday night was stellar, with British tenor Christopher Ventris masterfully reprising the role he performed last season at The Dallas Opera to win that house's Maria Callas award for debut artist of the year. He enters like a divine troubadour on what appears to be a Soviet show trial, dons a suit for his famous wedding march and promptly reassumes the role of vagabond when he is forced to leave his beloved wife. His pitch, power and presence were perfect for a Wagnerian heldentenor.
Soile Isokoski showed her pedigree as one of Europe's leading lyric sopranos with a commanding performance as Elsa. Her voice quivered at all the right moments, and her sadness left an impression.
Germans Georg Zeppenfeld as King Heinrich and Petra Lang as the vindictive pagan Ortrud both sang with perfect diction. Jukka Rasilainen was flawless as the defeated count Friedrich.
The orchestra under Leif Segerstam was controlled throughout and avoided overdoing Wagner's powerful score.