Stephanie, Richard, and I saw *Lohengrin* at the Met on March 14, 2023.
It was the thing I was most looking forward to this season, I am CRAZY for *Lohengrin.* I'm nutty for Wagner and it's been my favorite Wagner opera for a few years. I went all the way to Munich in November of 2019 to see a production there. It was tremendous.
This is a new production for the Met, directed by François Girard. He had directed new productions of *Parsifal* and *The Flying Dutchman* over the last few seasons and we were impressed with both, especially *Parsifal,* so our hopes were up. The production was a little silly now and then but so is the opera so go figure. The first act set was maybe a cave? It had a big round hole cut out of the ceiling, through which we could see the rising moon. Numerous times, I guess it was supposed to convey the passage of time. Later the moon went away and we saw the stars moving around. I don't do it justice, it was a hypnotic accompaniment to the luminous overture. Stephanie said the visuals reminded her of the work of James Turrell:
The chorus has a huge role in this opera and I'm sure they were thrilled to be able to sit down! The first and third act sets had risers built in, so they could sit down when they weren't singing or doing any cape choreography (more about that later). BTW between the sci fi cave setting and the capes, to me the staging had a strong whiff of the original *Star Trek.* Never a bad thing.
*Lohengrin* is the story of a young woman, Elsa (dreamy soprano), who has been wrongfully accused of murdering her brother. The king (bass) and the tribunal (chorus) have assembled to hear her case. The man who has accused her, Friederich (beleaguered baritone) explains the story from his perspective. He's shadowed by his wife, Ortrud (witchy soprano). The king has said this will be a trial by combat - - the winner of the swordfight will be in the right, the loser will be in the wrong.
The king asks Elsa who will be defending her and she tells everyone that she's had a dream about a knight in shining armor who will come to rescue her. And wouldn't you know he DOES. This is Lohengrin (dreamy tenor). He says he's there to defend Elsa, he defeats the baritone in the duel but shows him mercy. He tells Elsa that he loves her and wants to marry her but only on the condition that she never ask his name or where he comes from.
The witchy soprano toys with Elsa, plants the seed of doubt in her mind. Elsa and Lohengrin are married (cue "Here Comes the Bride," which originated as the wedding march in this opera) and on their wedding night she can't keep herself from asking him his name and where he comes from. He gives her a heavy sigh and says, "OK, I'll tell you and everybody." Somewhere in there he kills the baritone, who surprises them in their bedchamber (never a good idea).
Everybody's rounded up and Lohengrin gives them the 411: he comes from the Holy Grail, is the son of Parsifal, and has to go back home. He's very disappointed in Elsa and of course she's all broken up about it herself. The witchy soprano, we assume, dies of embarrassment and shame. On his way out Lohengrin brings Elsa's brother back to life and Elsa dies. I guess only one of them is allowed to live at a time. Stephanie didn't understand why Elsa had to die. I told her it's Wagner's fixation - - the woman has to sacrifice herself and she can most effectively do that by dying.
Here's a quote from the NY Times review of the current Bayreuth production: "Only by following the lead of Ortrud — here no wicked witch but a freethinking freedom fighter, as Mr. Sharon [the director] calls her — will Elsa free herself, by asking a question that the patriarchy bans. So Elsa does, and when the opera ends, she does not die but instead walks off into an unknown future, toting an orange backpack that Lohengrin has given her." I like that better! It was a little more vague in the Met production, she might have just passed out from all the excitement.
The most whimsical aspect of the Met staging was the cape choreography. At the start of the opera it appeared that all of the chorus members were wearing dark grey robes. The people on the left did some sort of switcheroo to reveal an emerald green lining to their robes, which aligned them with the king. Later the people on the right did a similar switcheroo to reveal a red lining, which aligned them with the witchy soprano and her beleaguered baritone husband. And the people in the middle had a white lining, which aligned them with Elsa and Lohengrin.
Later in the opera the chorus did some very involved cape choreography and switched from white to green to red, flipping all around, rotating those three colors. I'd love to see how that's logistically worked out with the garment itself. Stephanie noticed that a chorus member had a wardrobe malfunction, the poor guy couldn't quite work out his switcheroo.
Before I get to the singers, I have to mention the orchestra and chorus. The Met's music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducted the opera and did a gorgeous job. The orchestra really knows how to play Wagner and more than a few of them probably played lots of Wagner under the late James Levine, which serves them very well. They had the rapture, the drama, the sheer presence you need to make Wagner work. The brass gets high marks, they really let it fly. The chorus was absolutely sublime. I read somewhere that there's no other opera in the repertoire that has such a central role for the chorus - - they really rose to the occasion.
Lohengrin was sung by Piotr Beczała. I've heard him probably ten times at the Met, usually in his bread and butter Italian rep. Lohengrin is his first Wagner role, at the Met or anywhere else. He was fantastic. He had the dreaminess, the power, and (most importantly) the stamina. His resources are really taxed at the end of the opera. It's not just that he sings so much, it that the singing lies in a tricky and exhausting part of his voice. Beczała sounded like he was singing Brahms lieder at home, like it was no big deal at all. But if anyone has a way to get a message to him, please tell him NOT to take on a full load of Wagner roles! He'd lose all the beauty in his voice with a steady diet of Wagner.
Tamara Wilson sang the central role of Elsa. She's not the title character but the plot more or less revolves around her. She was extraordinary. You could tell that she has a big voice (she sang Isolde in Santa Fe this past summer) but she sang most of the evening in a lush, tender, delicate way, very fitting for the character. I'd love to hear her more.
I described Friederich as a "beleaguered baritone" but Evgeny Nikitin was more beleaguered than I would have wished. I worried for him, never a good feeling. He was in both of Girard's previous Met Wagner productions and he sounded good in those so hopefully he's just going through a bit of a rough patch.
It shouldn't be any surprise that my favorite character in the opera is the witchy soprano, Ortrud. Girard gave her more prominence than she might generally have, maybe because Christine Goerke is such an electrifying performer. I believe she was the first person you saw onstage - - she was a menacing, shadowy presence during the first act (in which I believe she doesn't sing at all). She and Nikitin did a lot of shameless scenery chewing at the start of the second act. Their overt and delighted conniving reminded me of Boris and Natasha from *Rocky and Bullwinkle*:
My favorite moment in the opera is Ortrud's appeal to the dark gods in act two. I call it the most thrilling two minutes in opera - - but it turns out it's only a minute and a half! Here's Evelyn Herlitzius spitting tacks in a production from a few years ago:
Goerke had a similar problem as Herlitzius. The high notes are secure and thrilling but maybe they don't really live right in the center of the note (or any note). A certain amount of flinging the notes around with reckless abandon is entirely appropriate in this role, but just in case you think that's necessary or built in, here's the great Astrid Varnay singing the same bit with laser focus and no sacrifice in drama:
I could share "Entweihte Götter" clips all day long, please don't put a quarter in that slot. I'll conclude by saying that Goerke really delivered in this moment and in the role in general. She had some delightful old school cape choreography of her own at three key moments in this little aria. She was wearing a cape with a red satin lining and she really knew how to work it. She raised her right hand when she invoked Wotan. She lowered that hand and raised her left hand when she invoked Freia. She lowered both hands and then raised both hands TOGETHER at the end of the aria, on her high A sharp. She was truly demented, which is what I'm after.