Wagner’s Lohengrin was the last work the master completed before settling into a mid-career six-year slump. During this compositional hiatus, he wrote the poems for his Ring operas and ruminated in print on various topics, musical and otherwise, but work on the music dramas essentially ceased. What came later – The Ring, Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, and Parsifal – was worth the wait, but the earlier Lohengrin should not, consequently, be viewed as just an early work predating Wagner’s artistic maturity; it is a sparklingly full example of the Wagnerian art. San Francisco Opera’s new production presented Lohengrin with rich expressiveness and a vivid, contemporary setting, reminding us all of the work’s timeless and transcendent qualities.

So often presented as a medieval fantasy, in the hands of director Daniel Slater and production designer George Innes Hopkins, this Lohengrin, a co-production already seen in Houston and Geneva, eschewed pageantry for realism, setting it in an unnamed post-war Eastern European locale. With period-detail evident in the costumes and sets, Hopkins’ designs clearly supported Slater’s vision for a more historic than mythic Lohengrin. Where the production really scored, however, was with its, for me, novel interpretation of the title role as a real man, rather than the other-worldly, perfect entity whose marriage to an earth-bound woman is supposed to shock us when it ends badly. Here, Lohengrin does not enter on a swan, radiantly arrayed in gleaming white armor; he emerges from seemingly nowhere, a lonely wanderer-type, noble in his lack of ostentatious display. Further, this Grail Knight actually looked smitten with his chosen mate and ready to sacrifice everything for love, as long as she agreed to not ask his name that is. Under these circumstances, Elsa’s inability to trust her partner during their disastrous honeymoon was tragic in a human, believable way.

The Act I action, wherein Elsa is accused of fratricide by two political schemers only to be defended by the mysterious Lohengrin, takes place within a palatial library. Act II opens with Telramund and Otrud, disgraced by their failed bid for power, living outside the building's walls amid street people. The sets in either case seemed to frame the action within a playable space appropriate to the scale of the drama. Where Slater and Hopkins’ production was most effective, however, was during the intimate-to-the point-of-claustrophobic bridal chamber scene in Act III. It seemed like the walls of the small, brightly-lit, white room were closing in on Elsa and Lohengrin as their bond disintegrated under the weight of distrust. Elsa, mad with doubt about her husband's identity is raving while Lohengrin, all love and reason, tries to dissuade her from asking the question that will destroy their happiness. By the time Telramund rushes in to kill Lohengrin, the relationship between the lovers was clearly beyond repair and Brandon Jovanovich’s Lohengrin looked pained at the unraveling of their happy dream. The final scene where Lohengrin restores Elsa’s lost brother from swan-form and leaves Brabant forever was a bitter leave-taking for all, especially the knight.

After promising turns with the company in Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Wagner’s Die Walküre, Jovanovich’s Lohengrin was eagerly anticipated in San Francisco. Rather than meet expectations, the tenor exceeded them, singing the role with passionate engagement and attractive tone throughout the long performance. Jovanovich’s farewell to the swan in Act I was voiced delicately like a private aside to his avian companion before he formally announced himself to the Brabantians with stunning authority.

In her San Francisco Opera debut, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was a sympathetic Elsa. Garbed in plain white gowns through much of the opera, she seemed a disconnected, other-worldly character of the narrative; a prophetic dreamer, naïvely unconcerned with the treacherous power grasping around her. As King Heinrich, Kristinn Sigmundsson trumpeted loudly, an approach that was at odds with his fine, statesman-like poise. Gerd Grochowski was excellent as Telramund, showing the characters pitiful self-destruction under the toxic influence of his wife, Ortrud. Petra Lang portrayed the sorceress’ relentless and reckless ambition most effectively during Act II. As the King’s Herald, Brian Mulligan declared with convinction.

Musically the performance was guided by the deft, constantly in-motion hands and arms of music director Nicola Luisotti. From the opera’s magnificent prelude until its final bars, Luisotti conducted with animation and unflagging energy, eliciting balance and a few perfectly calibrated climaxes. The massive scenes, such as the close of Act I, occasionally needed more clarity, but such moments will surely gain definition as the run proceeds. Onstage for most of the night, the chorus showed endurance and sang with focus and power. This arresting, updated production of Lohengrin and its excellent cast should not be missed.