NEW YORK — Lohengrin returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 26 for the first time since 2006 in a new production by François Girard. The director’s abstract, post-apocalyptic vision of Wagner’s version of the medieval tale lacked castle, swan boat, and sword fight. But extraordinary singing and playing made this an event to celebrate.
In his third Met production, after The Flying Dutchman and Parsifal, Girard conceived of Lohengrin as a sequel to his 2013 Parsifal. Lohengrin, who according to the libretto was the son of Parsifal, was a Grail knight sent to the aid of Elsa, Duchess of Brabant, unjustly accused of killing her brother. Originally a co-production with the Bolshoi, the original run opened in Moscow on Feb. 24, 2022. But after the Russian attack on Ukraine that day, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, cut ties with the Bolshoi and had new sets and costumes constructed in Wales and in the Far East. So in-house tech work was accomplished in weeks rather than months, without any perceptible glitches on opening night.
Girard moved the action from 10th-century Brabant (present-day Belgium) to a post-apocalyptic, unnamed location. The main set is an underground bunker, covered by a crumbling angled concrete wall with a large central oculus open to the heavens. During the prelude, a video 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, a glowing star explodes, scattering red dust through the skies.
As the first act began, a white spotlight came up on King Heinrich at his tree stump throne, rallying the Brabant people against a threatened invasion by the Huns. Lights gradually revealed the 130-member chorus behind him, shrouded in black robes that, when opened, displayed linings which ingeniously changed color to indicate the different forces of influence: green for the Germans, red for Brabant, white for Elsa. After several hours of watching the crowd flapping their robes open and shut, like giant bats, to show the different colors, this device began to look absurd. Still, the precisely timed choreography of color changes added texture and rhythm to a scenario with very little physical action and long stretches of exposition and dialogue. (Sets and costumes by Tim Yip, lighting by David Finn, projections by Serge Bennathan).
Red also signaled the malign machinations of Ortrud and her husband Telramund, both in scarlet wigs and red robes. After having turned Elsa’s brother, the child-Duke Gottfried, into a swan, Ortrud has persuaded Telramund, Count of Brabant and Gottfried’s guardian, to accuse Elsa of murdering Gottfried, and thereby claim Elsa’s title and property. Unable to settle the dispute, Heinrich orders a trial by combat. After Elsa relates her dream of a knight who will be her champion, the red lighting turns bright white, the faint shadow of a bird’s wing appears in the heavens, and a shining figure appears from above, dazzling the crowd. Securing Elsa’s promise of marriage and her pledge never to ask his name, Lohengrin overcomes Telramund’s sword via mental telepathy (as Parsifal’s conquest of Klingsor is often depicted).
The second act apparently takes place under the Brabant bunker, with King Heinrich visible upstage beyond the oculus. Ortrud and Telramund, in retreat after his defeat, plot their revenge and return to power. Ortrud then tries to plant doubt in Elsa’s mind over her savior’s identity, and later tries without success to interrupt the wedding. Despite her last-minute attempt to break up the ceremony, Heinrich banishes the pair, and the wedding proceeds.
But in Act Three the doubt sown by Ortrud overpowers Elsa’s confidence, and she asks the forbidden question. Lohengrin fends off a surprise attack by Telramund, killing him, and, in his 11th-hour aria, “In fernem Land,” explains his divine mission and why he must leave. The ending (spoiler alert!) has no revisionist twists: Lohengrin departs, Gottfried returns, Elsa dies in his arms, Ortrud disappears and presumably dies, and Wagner triumphs.
Casting could scarcely be bettered. Among the three lower voices, Brian Mulligan as the King’s Herald was strong from his first phrase, though the other two needed several minutes to warm up. Gunther Groissböck (King Heinrich) and Evgeny Nikitin (Telramund) share some of the same Wagner roles, but Groissböck’s sonorous lower range gave Heinrich authority, while Nikitin’s brighter, lighter timbre allowed for nimble vocal characterization as his hapless, disgruntled character.
Christine Goerke has begun adding mezzo-soprano 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. Even when silent, her presence commanded attention. Though her gleeful silent-movie witchery sometimes strayed into high camp, 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 mainly concentrated on Italian repertoire, but her voice’s mix of youthful-sounding brightness, bel canto legato, and power proved ideal for the pure, innocent Elsa. The character’s dramatic arc develops slowly; while the soprano mustered unexpected vehemence in her late second-act confrontation with Ortrud, her vocal quality was the main vehicle of her character.
I’ve saved the best for last: “Ein Wunder!” exclaims the crowd when the swan knight appears, and Piotr Beczała’s Lohengrin was miraculous indeed. When he appeared at the edge of the oculus 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, with a blend of Italianate lyricism and heroic power. He conveyed the unreal quality of the character with unflagging, calm radiance and an energy that enlivened his Elsa.
I had expected brisk tempos from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but in fact he lingered judiciously — the run time with intermissions was 4’45”, or 15 minutes longer than announced. The Met’s music director brought out just 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, orchestra and chorus occasionally fell out of sync, especially in the treacherous transitional music of Act III, with multiple trumpet ensembles throughout the house in addition to the full orchestra and chorus, but coordination should improve after another performance or two.
This is a glorious Lohengrin. If you don’t like the science fiction ambiance — and a few viewers objected loudly — just close your eyes and bask in one of the most exciting musical performances of the current Met season.
Lohengrin runs through April 1. For tickets, go here. Lohengrin will be screened in cinemas on March 18; find a theater here. For a live audio stream on March 2 at 6:30 p.m., go here.