Directors love Wagner’s operas, which infuse suggestive overtones of parables into vividly conceived plots and characters. They provide strong bones and flexibility.
Recently, “Lohengrin,” about an anxious and divided society and accessing a character with magical powers and secrets, is set in diverse settings such as a laboratory, classroom, and neo-fascist town square.
and Sunday at the Metropolitan Opera, in a dark, blunt mix of pre-modern and post-apocalyptic elements. Directed by François Girard, the production suffers from an easy children’s theater color scheme, but features brilliant musical performances from the leading orchestra and singers.
At the Met in 1998, Robert Wilson distilled “Lohengrin” in a vision of swirling bands of light and icy-shifting gestures. The opening night audience, accustomed to Wagner’s very natural production, rebelled with a storm of boos. But 25 years later, Wilson’s show seems to mark an earlier milestone, a harbinger of how the company’s dramatic reach will expand.
Among the highlights of this new era was Girard’s staging, as of 2013, of Wagner’s “Parsifal”. Set on a stark hillside among a group of men in white button-downs and black slacks, this was Opera’s take on Guardians of the Holy Grail as a contemporary cult looming over planets and swirling in projections.
Those cosmic projections returned in Gerard’s “Lohengrin,” with a sort of cataclysmic celestial explosion depicted during the orchestral introduction. The action that follows begins under an explosive wall hanging at an angle above the stage, a huge hole open to a view of shifting stars and galaxies.
People entering are dressed in heavy medieval robes and jewels; The pagan throne is made of the roots of a tree. But the Wall is made of reinforced concrete, and Lohengrin, a mysterious knight who soon arrives to avenge the honor of a woman accused of killing her brother, dons the extra-modern garb of the Grail defenders in Girard’s “Parsifal”.
The connection makes sense: As we learn at the end of “Lohengrin,” when the secrets of its title character are revealed, Lohengrin is Parsifal’s son. But Gerard’s nod to “Parsifal” does his new production no favors. Whereas “Parsifal” is clear in imagining the climax of the opera as the fusion of women in the cult of the Grail, this “Lohengrin” is not interested in new interpretations. No one will mistake her as a landmark in the history of the Met.
Instead, Gerard’s “Lohengrin”, which brings the opera back to the company after 17 years, is an emphatic, serviceable, essentially conservative framework for the piece. Fortunately, some great singers fill in the picture. Most important, however, is that Pyotr Pekzala in the title role almost floats off stage with uncanny grace and dignity.
This square-jawed, always elegant tenor is popular at the Met because he plays missionary men in French and Italian classics, such as the duke in “Rigoletto,” Rodolfo in “La Bohème,” and, this winter, the ardent loris in “Fedora.” But the clearest introduction to his Lohengrin melancholy is his Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” who sings of winter loneliness as he prepares for duel and death.
Beczala performs Wagner – pure, subtle and often revealing – with complete security and elegance. Soft lanes have a fairytale sensibility; His flows, and strong cover is reminiscent of his more open roles. But this Lohengrin, even in his most impassioned state, has the coolness appropriate to another character. He is human, but not entirely.
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There’s also an intriguing subtlety when we meet Tamara Wilson’s wrongfully accused Elsa, the glassy sheen of her blonde accent as icy as her hair. But as Beczala’s Lohengrin maintains his reserve, Wilson’s voice gradually warms, gently melting into the duet of love and palpable anger in confrontation.
Yannick Nizet Seguin, music director at the Met, achieves this grand score with a sure sense of a fluidity of speed that makes Wagner’s scenes breathe. On Sundays he led the orchestra in wide expansions before refocusing it on sagging momentum. Crisp without being brittle, the sparkling beginning of the first act’s introduction builds with a lyrical flow to a thrilling climax.
There are trumpets on stage in this opera, and additional brass powers in the balconies. But N’Zet Seguin kept the texture light; Even at its strongest, the sound was never static.
He changed shirts between shows, from black to red to white, and also emphasized the already obvious play with color that is so central to the show. Conjurers manipulate intricate arrays of magnets in their robes to reveal red, green, or white linings, depending on the dramatic needs of the moment. (Sets and costumes were designed by Tim Yip, Oscar winner for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; dark lighting, by David Finn; interstellar projections, by Peter Flaherty.)
The green color symbolizes King Heinrich, who arrived in Brabant (around Antwerp in present-day Belgium) with his followers to rally the people there to join him in fighting off an invasion from the east. Red is the color of the indigenous Brabantians, who are under the evil influence of Frederick von Telramund and his charming wife Ortrud. And white evokes the innocence and purity of Elsa, to whose aid Lohengrin came.
Well, if it is rather on the nose. But the endless glint of various liners to the beat of the booming music—and the visual struggles some Sunday wishers had with magnets—became tiresome.
And should every Met production now have bits of choreographed slips and spins? Here, attributed to Serge Benathan, the attendees were lightly dancing with lanterns, cape-throwing courtiers, quirky gentry and marching laughably in time. It was all a live production piece to the point of overkill.
Like Ortrud, soprano Christine Jurk is perhaps the performer closest to the mood of the show: she’s unsubtle, if effective, constantly wringing her hands and clutching at her necklaces. Gerard ties it up alone, making super charming gestures, for almost the entirety of the third act’s prologue. We get it: she’s evil!
Jurk’s voice is lively, but the rich phrases alternate with sour, snarling ones. Some of the higher notes shiver, while others miss the point. The bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, an imposing presence, sounded weary and out of tune like Telramund. I found myself wishing that baritone Brian Mulligan, who sang The Herald with an unusually lively intensity, had had that larger part instead. Bass Günther Großbuck Heinrich was strong.
The Met’s choir, in one of the most difficult works in its repertoire, is supportive and impressive: in the dizzying stanza after Lohengrin introduces himself, her ethereal singing is more felt than heard. Only at some of the most complex counterpoints can the sound be crisper, and the words clearer.
Gerrard’s play is even more straightforward than his fuzzy adaptation of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer,” which will be revived at the Met this spring. It conveys, at least, the urgency of the march towards war that gives the opera its stakes. And this production will always be an unwitting reminder of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Conceived as a joint production of the Bolshoi Theater and The Met, it premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow on February 24, 2022, the day of the invasion. It soon became apparent that sharing a production would be impossible, and that the sets would have to be rebuilt from scratch, adding over a million dollars to the cost of the show.
“Lohengrin” is an opera with war in mind. But King Heinrich and his call to defend Germany against invaders make no easy parallel with an embattled Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
This is because Heinrich’s story was taken up – by Wagner and later by the Nazis – as a symbol of Germanic nationalism, in all its darkness and xenophobia. This is the context in which some opera companies change a word in Lohengrin’s final line, when, upon the magical return of Elsa’s brother, he announces that the “Führer,” or leader of the people, has arrived.
To further avoid this savior’s association with Hitler, several directors offer commentary on how they portray the brother. Is there something ominous about him? redeeming thing? anything?
Gerard, though, has a very Aryan-looking young blond in angelic flowing white coming down the stairs, a strange final bit of naivety in this “Lohengrin,” a production that ends up being too simplistic for a complex moment and complex opera.
It runs through April 1 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.
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