Lohengrin returned to the Met on February 26 for the first time since 2006 in a new production by François Girard. After Robert Wilson’s starkly abstract 1998 production, the Canadian director’s more conventional staging offered a post-apocalyptic vision of Brabant, though lacking castle, swan boat, and sword fight. This Lohengrin translated 19th century Romanticism, with its supernatural component, into a murky, futuristic Middle Ages reminiscent of the popular TV series, “Game of Thrones.” Responses to the concept were mixed, but extraordinary singing and playing made this an event to celebrate.
Lohengrin was Girard’s third Met production, after The Flying Dutchman and Parsifal. Girard imagined Lohengrin as a sequel to his 2013 Parsifal. According to the libretto, Lohengrin was the son of Parsifal, one of the Grail brotherhood whose members were sent to the aid of maidens in distress. Originally a coproduction with the Bolshoi, the original run opened in Moscow on February 24, 2022. But after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Met General Manager Peter Gelb severed ties with the Bolshoi and had new sets and costumes constructed in Wales and in the far East. In-house tech work was heroically accomplished in weeks rather than months.
Girard moved the action from tenth century Brabant (in present-day Belgium) to a gloomy bunker in an unnamed location. The main set, slowly revealed during the prelude, was a dark space, covered by a crumbling angled concrete roof with a large central oculus open to the heavens. Video projections during the opening music showed the moon’s path through the starry sky, its orbit shifting and speeding in response to the celestial music. At the climax of the prelude, the moon exploded in a cloud of crimson dust.
As Act I begins, King Heinrich stands alone in the dark, exhorting the Brabant people to resist the invading hordes. Lights gradually rise to reveal the 130-member chorus seated on steps behind him, shrouded in black cloaks which, when opened, display linings which ingeniously change color to indicate the different forces of influence: green for the Germans, red for Brabant, and white for Elsa. This lost its novelty by the end of the first act, but the precisely timed choreography of color changes added texture and rhythm to a static scenario with long stretches of exposition and dialogue. To provide extra movement, Elsa’s retinue of eight dancers accompany her entrances, waving white-lined cloaks, while beyond the oculus, clouds, stars, and misty ectoplasm swirl in color-coded response to the music and plot (sets and costumes by Tim Yip, lighting by David Finn, projections by Serge Bennathan).
Red also signals the malign machinations of Ortrud and her husband, Telramund, to claim Elsa’s title and property. After Elsa relates her dream of a knight who will be her champion, the red skies turn bright white, the faint shadow of a bird’s wing appears against the moon, and Lohengrin’s shining figure appears at the rim of the opening, dazzling the crowd as he descends among them. The trial by combat was almost motionless, as Lohengrin overcame Telramund’s sword apparently by mental telepathy, much as Parsifal’s conquest of Klingsor is often depicted in contemporary productions.
The second act takes place under the Brabant bunker, with King Heinrich visible in the distance upstage beyond the oculus. After Ortrud and Telramund exchange recriminations and plot their revenge, Elsa appears above the oculus, and joins Ortrud below for a tete-à-tete. The intimate scale of these two scenes contrasts sharply with the grandeur of the mass ensembles, which provide plenty of visual and aural thrills but little to advance the plot.
Act III finally offers an intimate encounter between the bridal pair; as the doubts planted by Ortrud embolden Elsa into asking the forbidden question, the couple lose their composure, and when Telramund attacks him, Lohengrin kills the count in self-defense. In his 11th hour monologue, “In fernem Land,” the Swan Knight explains his divine mission and departure. There are no revisionist twists: Lohengrin gives Elsa the horn, ring, and sword to save for Gottfried, and he departs, Gottfried returns, the grieving Elsa dies in his arms, Ortrud disappears, and Wagner triumphs. Compared to Wilson’s neon and Kabuki version, it’s fundamentally a very traditional interpretation in post-modern dress.
Casting was very good to excellent. Brian Mulligan as the Heerrufer was strong from his first phrase, though the other two men needed several minutes to warm up. Gunther Groissböck (King Heinrich) and Evgeny Nikitin (Telramund) share some of the same Wagner roles, but Groissbock’s more sonorous lower range gave King Heinrich authority, while Nikitin’s brighter, lighter timbre allowed for nimble vocal characterization as the hapless and disgruntled Telramund, despite signs of fatigue. The scheduled cover, Thomas Hall, sang half of the performances in the run, by all reports providing a sturdier vocal presence.
Christine Goerke has begun adding mezzo roles to her dramatic soprano repertoire, recently singing Amneris in a concert Aida. Ortrud proved a natural fit for her rich, often ferocious voice as well as her intense charisma. Though her gleeful silent-movie witchery sometimes strayed into high camp, especially during the prelude to Act III, her chemistry with Nikitin, an experienced Wagnerian bad boy, was inspired, boosting the energy on stage every time they appeared together.
Soprano Tamara Wilson has concentrated on Italian repertoire, especially Verdi, but her voice’s youthful-sounding brightness, bel canto legato, and power proved ideal for the pure and innocent Elsa. While she mustered unexpected vehemence in her confrontation with Ortrud and in her showdown with Lohengrin, her pure, fresh sound was the main expressive vehicle of her character. (Elena Stikhina sang the final two performances.)
But I’ve saved the best for last: Piotr Beczala’s Lohengrin was “ein Wunder” indeed. When he appeared at the edge of the oculus—dressed in white shirt and black pants, like one of Girard’s Parsifal Grail knights—and slowly descended into the crowd, he radiated heroism and naturalness: God’s servant called to his work. His singing was gorgeous, clarion and nuanced, pure of tone, blending italianate lyricism and heroic power. He conveyed the too-good-to-be-true quality of the character with unflagging, calm radiance and a manly energy that enlivened his Elsa.
I had expected brisk tempos from the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but he lingered judiciously: run time was 4’45”, fifteen minutes longer than announced. He teased out the right inner instrumental lines, and largely avoided overpowering the singers except at a few overwhelming moments. But wall-of-sound climaxes are one of the pleasures of Wagner, and the Met orchestra and the mighty Met chorus delivered magnificently. On opening night, the full ensemble occasionally fell out of sync, especially in the treacherous transitional music of Act III, with multiple pairs of trumpets stationed onstage and around the house supplementing the full orchestra and chorus, but coordination improved by the time of the broadcast. (Patrick Furrer conducted three performances.)
The April 18 performance as seen in HD provided some subtle differences from the in-house experience. Musically, close miking flattered all the voices. Groissböck’s lowest notes were more audible than in the theater, and Nikitin sounded tireless throughout the show. While large-ensemble coordination was more precise than on opening night, the thrilling surround-sound effect of the brass fanfares throughout the house was somewhat muted, depending on each theater’s sound system. In my neighborhood AMC, the brass seemed to emerge from at least three different locations. Close-ups of the lead characters enhanced the drama at key moments on the crowded stage but eliminated some of the celestial weather and flashing of capes.
Lohengrin, with its dated social conventions and static dramaturgy, is always challenging to stage. This production, while striking to the eye, was unquestionably polarizing. But whether experienced at the Met or at the cineplex, this was a musically splendid Lohengrin. If you didn’t like the science fiction ambiance, it was worth it to simply close your eyes and bask in one of the most exciting musical performances of the current Met season.
© Wagner Notes, May 2023, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.