OPERA / Errant knight comes home: David Patrick Stearns reports from Seattle on Stephen Wadsworth's streamlined staging of Wagner's Lohengrin in Seattle

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Seattle Opera's Lohengrin has no business being as good as it is. Though the company's reputation is for workmanlike Ring cycles and innovations that are more eccentric than revelatory, it opened a highly satisfying Lohengrin last week without benefit of high-tech atmospheric effects and with a cast of singers who have yet to join the elite circle of Wagnerians who migrate between New York, London, Munich and Vienna.

It's an elemental Lohengrin on many levels. By not attempting to externalise characters' inner psyches, the set focuses attention on the singers, who mostly portray their roles with a freshness that rewards one's concentration. The production by Stephen Wadsworth (best known as Bernstein's librettist on A Quiet Place) pursues this simplicity on a more metaphoric level. Perhaps in an attempt to deflate the piece of its sexism and the proto-Nazi overtones in its story of an angelic (no doubt Aryan) knight rescuing the virtuous Elsa, the opera's hero becomes less ethereal and the villains more redeemable, thus clarifying the deeper themes of faith and trust. But there is, too, an element of class struggle: when Lohengrin arrives, medieval Brabant is a highly compartmentalised place, with soloists, chorus, loyalists and revolutionaries all in their own corners of the stage; by the close, they are all roaming free. Lohengrin's real legacy, this suggests, is democracy.

Naturally, this approach demands a no-glamour look, though Thomas Lynch's almost shockingly spartan design sadly lacks Wieland Wagner's stylish eloquence. In Act 1, the plain wood panelling, with a balcony for the chorus, looks like an unfurnished convention hall. But deft use of lighting makes it come alive in later acts, turning it into a primitive castle wall and the rooms within. There is also a lovely mechanical swan, craning its neck with great expressive impact in beckoning Lohengrin back home.

Although there are times when the approach seems more a budgetary necessity than an artistic choice, such notions vanish in the presence of the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, for whose burly, open-hearted charisma the staging seems to have been conceived. With his big, sturdy middle range, and ringing upper notes, he is clearly the finest Lohengrin around. He has the vocal power to stand up to the mightiest Telramund, though he didn't have much competition in Greer Grimsley's characterisation, which was vocally imposing but not very literate.

Andrea Gruber was an unusually robust Elsa, impetuous more than abstract, a quality that better explains the character's shortsightedness in forgiving Ortrud and falling prey to suspicions about Lohengrin. Though I haven't always enjoyed Carol Yahr, her Ortrud was nearly as vocally and theatrically compelling as Eva Marton was in her prime.

Sadly, the conductor Hermann Michael seemed too eager to rush through an opera that was Wagner's first success in slowing down theatrical time to a contemplative, magisterial pace. Michael is the sort who's more at home with the Act 3 prelude than with Act 1, which meant a production that radiated intelligence was, emotionally speaking, a bit remote.