Robert Wilson's controversial 1998 production of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage on Monday night, in the process recapturing some sense of how utterly strange this groundbreaking opera must have seemed at its 1850 premiere. Unlike that undernourished debut, helmed by Liszt in Weimar while Wagner was in political exile, tonight's performance boasted the magnificent sound of an exceptional orchestra in full cry. Conductor Philippe Auguin, previously heard here in Doktor Faustus and Die Frau ohne Schatten, elicited a gorgeous reading from his players. True, there were a handful of brass clams, but on the whole, this was a sensibly paced, beautifully balanced reading. The Met chorus, too, gave a sumptuous, mostly secure performance.
This, in combination with Wilson's radically abstracted stage pictures and ritualistic action, cut to the work's heart in a way that a more traditionally staged performance might actually obscure. For all its feudalistic trappings, Lohengrin is at its heart a moral directive about faith and fidelity, and the potentially devastating cost when trust is tested and found wanting. Shorn of conventional stage narrative, the core concept rises to the fore all the more clearly. And in sharp contrast to the near-violence that greeted this production the first time around, tonight's response ranged from respectful to worshipful. Wilson, had he happened to attend, might well have felt vindicated, if such things matter to him at all.
Ben Heppner, in the title role, offered his customary heroism and beauty of tone, although not without some effort in a few key moments. (Mindful of reviews that noted his problems with this production in 1998, it should be noted that he navigated the stage tonight with ease.) Karita Mattila, as Elsa, was more commanding still, reminding everyone present why she's among the most impressive actors currently working the operatic boards. Mattila also did well with Wilson's Kabuki-style gestures. Richard Paul Fink, who I remember fondly both as Klingsor in Wilson's Houston Grand Opera Parsifal in 1992 and as Edward Teller in John Adams's Doctor Atomic last October, provided a suitably dastardly Telramund. (That he proved a convincing actor in Wilson's milieu was no surprise, given his HGO experience and the fact that he made his Met debut in the previous run of this production.)
Luana Devol proved his match as Ortrud. She, too, managed Wilson's directions admirably; her voice, beautiful at lower volume, turned slightly shrill when pushed to climaxes, but overall her performance was winning. Eike Wilm Schulte sang beautifully as the King's Herald, and bravest of all was King Henry himself: Andrew Greenan, who made his house debut as a substitute for an ailing Stephen West. (This is starting to feel strangely de rigueur during the current Met season.) While his performance may not have been technically unreproachable, Greenan managed the almost unthinkable difficulty of slipping at the last minute into a Wilson staging with substantial tone and, appropriately, regal bearing.
Official reviews will turn up shortly; in the mean time, here are a few fascinating blasts from the past:
Bernard Holland's New York Times review of this production's opening night in 1998.
Holland's subsequent, personable Times think piece on the premiere's tumultuous reception.
Edward Rothstein's Times review of Wilson's Parsifal at Houston Grand Opera (which as I recall was more abandoned than protested).
Joseph Holbrooke Trio - The Moat Recordings (Tzadik)
Richard Wagner - Lohengrin, Act Three - Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, Jess Thomas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gottlob Frick, Vienna State Opera Choir, Vienna Philharmonic / Rudolph Kempe (EMI Classics)