Review: Holding Out for a Hero—Wagner’s Lohengrin Returns to the Met

Though director François Girard’s spacey Lohengrin staging falls flat, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s ravishing reading of the score is superb, making this a must-see.

A woman in a red dress and cape sings on stage in front of a crowd of men in white gowns.
Musically, the production is a splendid success; unfortunately, the staging arrived as part-Disney cartoon, part-outer space adventure. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The story goes that famous tenor Leo Slezak, upon missing his first entrance during a performance of Lohengrin, was heard to quip, “What time does the next swan leave?” Metropolitan Opera audiences have waited nearly seventeen years for their swan, but Wagner’s fairy-tale masterpiece has at last reappeared. Musically, the new production is a splendid success; unfortunately, director François Girard’s turgid new staging reads as part Disney, part outer space adventure.

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The third and most accessible of Wagner’s mature operas, Lohengrin resolves the crisis faced by Elsa, who has been falsely accused of murdering her brother. A mysterious knight appears just in time to fight for Elsa’s honor on the condition that she never ask his name. Ortrud, one of her accusers, insidiously plants doubts in her mind, and immediately after Elsa marries her savior, she asks the fateful question. After rejecting her, but before departing with the quip-worthy swan, the titular Lohengrin reveals his name and returns Elsa’s brother to her.

In recent decades, Wagner’s operas have been embraced by producers eager to explore the fertile psychological and socio-political issues that lie beneath the composer’s open-ended and complex works. Many productions have gone to audacious extremes: Hans Neuenfels’ Bayreuth Lohengrin famously featured rats; Yuval Sharon’s had diaphanous flying insects.

Girard had notable success ten years ago with a Parsifal re-set in a decimated modern world, his striking vision tracing its hero’s fraught maturation. However, where the earlier Met production was dramatically gripping, Girard’s static Lohengrin, set in Tim Yip’s craggy and cramped medieval planetarium, emerges as shallow and uninsightful.

During the ethereal prelude, projections depict earths swirling by, perhaps to suggest the span of Lohengrin’s life following the conclusion of Parsifal, which the Met bills as this production’s prequel. A planet brilliantly explodes at the music’s climax, unnervingly similar to whatever Marvel flick is currently showing at the local IMAX.

Lohengrin arrives in a simple white dress shirt and black trousers, just like the knights in Girard’s Parsifal. In contrast, the inhabitants of Brabant, stationary on their tiered bleachers, are clad in Yip’s long black robes, which they periodically throw open to reveal underlayers of white, green or red. The effect is arresting once or twice, but by the final act many in my audience were chuckling at its silliness.

Laughs also surfaced during Ortrud’s cape-twirling hijinks, which recall those of Snow White’s evil queen. In a role admirably suited to her bold soprano, Christine Goerke gamely clutches the proscenium and casts flamboyantly witchy spells in the couple’s bridal chamber but lacks the stage-animal panache that might have made Girard’s clichéd characterization work.

Instead of concocting over-the-top mime for Ortrud, the director might have profitably paid more attention to the central relationship between Elsa and Lohengrin, who rarely look at each other. The audience never learns if he loves her–despite refrains of “Ich liebe dich”–or if she viewed him as a flesh-and-blood husband or supernatural rescuer. Yet in spite of Girard’s arid direction, Piotr Beczala and Tamara Wilson build the wrenching bridal chamber duet to a shattering climax.

Wilson, returning to the Met after an absence of nine years, has lately been moving into punishingly heavy roles like Turandot and Isolde. However, here she gives us a lyrical, appealingly vulnerable Elsa. Her performance grows in intensity from the soft narration of her dream to her fiery encounter with Ortrud. Though the bottom of her voice sometimes lacks presence, her radiant high notes gleam luminously.

In a remarkable change of pace following a run as an ardent Loris in the company’s new Fedora, Beczala, in his first German role at the Met, sings a nearly ideal Grail Knight. The Polish tenor irresistibly combines melting lyricism with ringing heroics. Though directed by Girard to embody a nearly emotionless hero, the tenor’s urgent engagement breaks through. Where many of his predecessors have tired during the demanding third act, Beczala, who turned 56 in December, sounds fresh in his revealing “In fernam Land” and rueful greeting of the swan whose white wings at last make an appearance.

Günther Groissböck nowadays lacks the deep velvety bass-baritone that we covet as King Heinrich, but this potent singer vibrantly exudes authority over his unruly subjects. Evgeny Nikitin, so disappointing in Girard’s previous Wagner flop–the Met’s recent Der Fliegende Holländer–returns as a biting Telramund. Cowed by Goerke’s relentless needling, Nikitin aggressively challenges the nameless outsider but audibly tires during his fatal duet with Lohengrin. As the Herald, an incisive Brian Mulligan, whose repertoire also includes Telramund, makes much of his small but important role.

Though forced to embody Girard’s campy concept of Ortrud, Goerke sings with a domineering elemental force. While the middle of her soprano retains its richness, the top has become increasingly unpredictable so that the climaxes of her fearsome “Entweihte Götter!” and the final iterations of “Fahr heim” emerge flat. Ultimately, the risible production prevents Goerke from delivering the definitive Ortrud of which she is capable.

Clad first in black, then red and finally white for the opera’s three acts, Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin inspires his orchestra and chorus to one of their finest outings since the house reopened after the long pandemic closing. If the unsettled opening prelude proceeded too quickly, Nézet-Séguin soon found his footing and his orchestra covered itself in glory: the strings float with gossamer lightness and the resplendent trumpets in the pit, on stage and in the audience raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

Lohengrin contains Wagner’s most demanding and rewarding choral writing, and the Met’s unrivaled ensemble performs it with unflagging power and superb control. The mercurial conductor has sometimes been accused of overpowering his soloists, but he builds the opera’s spellbinding climaxes with care.

Lohengrin lasts nearly five hours, but Nézet-Séguin’s ravishing reading flies by. Unfortunately, sometimes I felt those hours might better be experienced from a score desk located in the highest side boxes of the Met–an inexpensive seat with incredible sound but no view of the stage.

As more than a few chorus members struggled with their inane and bulky color-coded cloaks, I wondered how Girard’s misbegotten Lohengrin, clogged with Serge Bennathan’s needlessly distracting “choreography,” ever got to the Met stage. Miraculously, it nonetheless remains this winter’s must-see—or, more precisely—must-hear opera event. Despite being disappointed by much of what transpired in front of me, I instantly made plans to return for a second and perhaps third Lohengrin, my favorite Wagner opera.

Lohengrin continues through April 1.

Review: Holding Out for a Hero—Wagner’s Lohengrin Returns to the Met