The Metropolitan Opera has been rushing to catch up with the twentieth century before it departs, but importing Robert Wilson’s “vision” of Wagner’s Lohengrin turns out to be a bad idea, literally too little too late. Wilson, you will remember, left New York’s avant-garde scene for Europe years ago, his head full of ideas for the vast theatrical epics that eventually brought him great acclaim from the Continental intelligentsia, putting the philistines back home to shame. Yet now he returns, avant-garde no longer, bringing with him this glacial, minimalist Lohengrin, a production that must strike even the most devout Wilsonian as a tiresome bit of old hat.
Wilson’s early original work, most famously Einstein on the Beach, was undeniably creative, innovative, and influential, but it is an aesthetic that sits uncomfortably with nineteenth-century repertory opera, a genre that this mixed-media man has been cultivating with increasing frequency as his prestige has grown and his invention flagged. One might think that slow-paced Wagnerian music drama would respond to Wilson’s typically ritualistic stage spectacles with their Kabuki-like gestures, leisurely changing stage pictures, traveling shafts of light, and geometric arrangement of rectangular beams. It doesn’t really, especially Lohengrin, still a conventionally structured opera in most basic respects and more resistant to abstraction than Wagner’s later works. Beyond that, Wilson’s dictatorial approach straitjackets the singers, who function as little more than slaves to the director’s concept. Some of us still go to the opera to see what a great singer will bring to a role, but a rigidly stylized Wilson extravaganza makes any individual expression impossible.
To make matters worse, most opera singers are unprepared to command the physical discipline necessary to realize Wilson’s precise stage pictures. Nor is a busy repertory company like the Met the place to keep such a mannerist exercise in trim shape – one can only imagine what it will look like next season, rehearsed by a house director working from the book. Perhaps the strain of having to strike and hold so many stained-glass attitudes accounted for the painful slippage in pitch during the unaccompanied Act One ensemble at the first performance – a musical lapse I never expected to hear at James Levine’s Met. The only singer onstage who seems at all comfortable is Deborah Polaski as Ortrud, no doubt because her career has been based in Germany, where director-dominated opera is practically a disease. Polaski stalks the stage with confidence, her clawlike hands in a constant state of threatening menace. If her portrait of this scheming villainess comes off as pure Hollywood camp – the Bride of Frankenstein, Norma Desmond, and the Spider Lady were bandied about at intermission – that is not entirely her fault. She might, though, be blamed for failing to project any real vocal presence and singing flat whenever the music takes her to the top of her range.
The rest of the cast just looks awkward – including the chorus, even while standing stock still. As the virginal but sorely beset Elsa, Deborah Voigt is required to pose continually with one hand extended and head cocked, gliding over the stage as if looking for an elusive dance partner. This she does gamely if unconvincingly, further hampered by an unflattering shift that does her ample figure no favors. At least Voigt sings the music with uncommon ease and tonal beauty, her expressive face betraying more urgency and emotional involvement than Wilson may have wanted. As Lohengrin, Ben Heppner mostly looks befuddled by it all, especially when he must slay the hapless Telramund with a rude glare. On opening night it took him two acts to place his voice properly, but when he finally arrived at his long narration, Heppner was producing enough golden tenorial tone to make him the swan knight of any Elsa’s dreams. My sympathies go to Eric Halfvarson as King Henry, who spends the opera trying to balance a horizontal scepter in his right hand, and to Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (Telramund) and Eike Wilm Schulte (the King’s Herald), who seem to have no stage function whatsoever.
At least there is James Levine’s famous orchestra, which gives a stately but glowing account of the score. Musically, in fact, this was a mostly distinguished Lohengrin, and the first-night audience appreciated the fact. The cheers that greeted Levine and the singers, though, turned into cries of rage the moment Wilson appeared for his bow, an imposing wall of vocal hostility the likes of which I have never before heard at the Met. How ironic that this performance was dedicated to Leonie Rysanek, who had died in Vienna just days before. Even the potent artistry of this generously giving soprano, whose Elsa and Ortrud are both precious Met memories, would have been useless in a production that might as well be cast with robots.