Wilson’s Stylized Lohengrin Finds Some New Admirers

Wagner conceived Lohengrin in a bath—while he was taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845. He was immersed, too, in the murky historical and mythological texts that never failed to fire his imagination. He envisioned the opera’s hero, a chivalrous Knight of the Holy Grail, appearing out of nowhere on a boat drawn by a swan. Of this period of inspiration, he later wrote: “It was as though I had grown wings.”

This, I imagine, was how the avant-garde director Robert Wilson must have felt after the Met’s recent revival of his Lohengrin was greeted with the loudest cheers I’ve heard all season. At its opening night in the spring of 1998, this same production was booed as though somebody had set off a stink bomb in the gilded red barn. Though admiring of the musical performance, most critics found Mr. Wilson’s minimalist light show and super-stylized stage direction pretentious and soporific.

But that was eight years ago. The other night, I—along with everyone else—found the whole thing riveting.

It’s not simply that time has been kind to Robert Wilson’s radically stripped-down vision. Over the years, this Lohengrin has grown kinder to the performers. For the production’s first revival, Mr. Wilson was persuaded to edit out some of the most punishing frozen Kabuki poses, to the point where the singers were able to behave as though rigor mortis hadn’t quite set in. Now, whether because of the director’s benevolence or the performers’ greater ease with Wilsonian body language, the opera’s characters—as opposed to their caricatures—have been allowed in. This Lohengrin can finally be appreciated as what I sensed it might be all along—as fully illuminating a Wagner production as any opera house has had in years.

The Met’s music director, James Levine, once said of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle that “he was the only director I worked with who … knew the music, knew the text, and understood the technical as well as the subliminal relationship between the two.” The same might be said of Mr. Wilson’s understanding of Wagner’s most popular masterpiece, whose meanings operate more subliminally than they do in perhaps any other opera.

For all of Lohengrin’s celebrated tunes and blazing orchestral colors, it’s essentially a drama of unknowingness in which the characters act not out of free will, but according to predetermined forces set loose before the opera begins by some cosmic puppeteer who might resemble, say, Robert Wilson. Scholars have described the story as, variously, a metaphysical clash between implacable paganism and redemptive Christianity and the tortured working-out of Wagner’s own Hamlet-like feelings toward a mother who “abandoned” him for a usurping stepfather. In any case, Lohengrin must be the haziest opera ever written.

Scenically, Mr. Wilson’s Lohengrin is nothing but haze—there isn’t a river, a rampart or a bridal room in sight. It’s an ethereal, weirdly mechanistic setting that Dan Flavin or Donald Judd might have conjured up: subtly shifting atmospheres of color intersected by the mysterious appearance of brilliantly indifferent bars of light. The choral forces—Saxons, Thuringians, Brabantians, pages and attendants—are more silhouettes than 10th-century Germans. The principals are defined primarily by unchanging, one-color costumes—deep maroon for Ortrud, virginal blue for Elsa, black for Lohengrin, Telramund and King Heinrich.

Rather than probe for any psychological friction, Wilson has directed them to glide—or just stand interminably—like sonambulists wrapped in a private opium dream such as the French arch-Wagnerian Baudelaire might have been recalling when he wrote, after hearing the opera’s opening prelude, that he felt “released from the bonds of gravity.” As in most dreams, Mr. Wilson’s Lohengrin permits of no physical interaction—not even during the famous bridal music. Still, the hall was alive with operatic contact. Rarely have I felt so keenly the spell of a Met performance (which in this case lasted well over four hours).

Of late, the company has been making a virtue of belated debuts—first, that of the virtually unknown 40-year-old Swedish soprano Erika Sunnegårdh as Leonore in Fidelio a few weeks ago; now, that of the American soprano Luana DeVol, a veteran of European opera houses, who has finally made it to the Met in the pivotal role of Ortrud at the age of 63. A tall woman with an imposing stage presence, Ms. DeVol’s wicked witch projected charismatic malevolence to spare, if not always the steadiest of tones. The American baritone Richard Paul Fink mustered considerable dignity as her hapless, henpecked husband, Telramund. The British bass Andrew Greenan, replacing an ailing Stephen West, made King Heinrich a figure of elegant perplexity. (Local Wagnerians are salivating over the prospect of his successor in the role—the towering German bass René Pape).

But the singers who sealed this performance as an unforgettable night at the Met were Karita Mattila as Elsa and Ben Heppner as Lohengrin. I’ve long ago run out of superlatives about the Finnish soprano, who brings such radiant conviction to every role she touches, from deranged Salome to noble Leonore. Suffice it to say that I’ve never heard the usually holier-than-thou Elsa enacted and sung with such complex purity. There have been reports that Mr. Heppner’s dress rehearsal was a vocally troubled affair, but he calmed all fears in the punishing third act with the unflagging power and plangent lyricism that he commands when he’s at the top of his game.

In the pit, the young French conductor Philippe Auguin, replacing an injured James Levine, showed all of the older maestro’s instinctive feeling for pace and sensitivity to the dramatic inflections of the individual singers. Hard as it is on the principals, Lohengrin is perhaps hardest of all on the chorus, particularly in this staging, which requires the members to stand and deliver without shifting a foot or moving a muscle for what to them must seem like hours. I’m told that the Met’s choristers jokingly refer to Mr. Wilson’s Lohengrin as “Long and Grim,” but if that’s what they were thinking on this occasion, they sure didn’t show it.