James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
21 March 1998
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerEric Halfvarson
LohengrinBen Heppner
Elsa von BrabantDeborah Voigt
Friedrich von TelramundHans-Joachim Ketelsen
OrtrudDeborah Polaski
Der Heerrufer des KönigsEike Wilm Schulte
Vier brabantische EdleThomas Studebaker
Matthew Polenzani
Gary Martin
Richard Vernon
The New York Times

Robert Wilson Adds Theater To ‘Lohengrin’

Robert Wilson’s theatrical reach, so varied and eclectic, has in recent years turned to standard operatic repertory. Here he applies (or imposes, according to your taste) the magical images and glacial time continuums so memorable in ”Einstein on the Beach” or ”Time Rocker” to the likes of ”Pelleas et Melisande” and ”Madama Butterfly.” On Monday, it was ”Lohengrin” at the Metropolitan Opera, and in Wagner Mr. Wilson seems to have met his match.

The ingredients — walls of shifting color, descending and crossing monoliths, silhouetted figures, sober dress and stylized gesture — all bear the seeds of earlier successes. It is the receptacle in which they are mixed that causes trouble. Achieving the precision necessary to Wilsonian theater is not easy in a big and busy repertory house. Then there are the people themselves. In his ”Parsifal,” Mr. Wilson solved the opera-singers problem by more or less banning them from the stage altogether. In ”Lohengrin,” he is not so lucky.

The result on Monday was two separate operas: for the ear a ”Lohengrin” for the most part radiantly sung and played, for the eye something distinctly less satisfying. Wagner would at first seem a perfect Wilson foil. Directors tear their hair wondering how best to situate Wagner’s onstage auditors as they dangle, orphaned and helpless, before his long musical monologues. In the Wilson style, immobility is legitimized; the blank response becomes a virtue.

Mr. Wilson’s love of slow movement would seem to complement a composer’s equally slow-moving stagecraft. It doesn’t. The director’s pictorial abstractions would also appear to fit Wagner’s larger spiritual themes and mythic grandeur precisely. They don’t. Mr. Wilson’s theater seems to work best when it runs against the grain of its material, when it can create benign disruptions and contradict particular stage directions (”Pelleas” comes to mind) in search of cleaner, brighter succinctness.

In ”Lohengrin,” the minds of a director and a composer come too close for comfort. The devices of the one begin to look like caricatures of the other. This was the real danger on Monday, and it was not wholly avoided.

I don’t think Act I went as the production team had hoped it would. No one seemed comfortable. Deborah Polaski’s miming as Ortrud looked like so much ”Sunset Boulevard.” Lohengrin’s spear twirled foolishly in midair. So demoralized were the singers that the act’s major quintet slipped badly out of tune. Dignity was partly restored in the succeeding hours, but the damage had been done.

Then there are Wagnerian singers. Robert Wilson’s best-realized stage figures are like whippets in human form; they move in stately freeze-frame progressions. Both Deborah Voigt (Elsa) and Ben Heppner (Lohengrin) are, on the other hand, very big people, and as such seemed to take unkindly to Mr. Wilson’s graceful gait and gesture. Unwhippet-like, both crossed and recrossed the stage, more like battleships easing awkwardly into dry dock.

Given their music, this was a shame. Ms. Voigt sang beautifully and purely. Her Act II duet with Ms. Polaski was deeply touching. Mr. Heppner is the real thing, a bona fide tenor (not a pushed-up baritone) who phrases scrupulously and whose easy, clear delivery precludes a sense of struggle. Some of the upper notes required more intense concentration, but they were well managed. Indeed, if the role of Lohengrin has not the weight of Tristan, Mr. Heppner’s negotiation of the first promises much for the second.

Ms. Polaski sang well. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a grimly handsome Telramund and sang splendidly. There was also Eric Halfvarson’s rich if tremulous King Henry. The Met chorus, largely stationary, had good moments and a few ensemble problems as well.

James Levine’s orchestra, on the other hand, was always wonderful. Even the sweet-sounding antiphonal brass choirs emanating from high balconies fit together, which was surprising given the distances involved. Frida Parmeggiani’s severely beautiful costumes gave a hint of the power and dignity this performance might have had. Afterward, loud cheers for the singers and musicians, loud boos for Mr. Wilson.

BERNARD HOLLAND | March 11, 1998

Los Angeles Times

‘Lohengrin’ Crowd Doesn’t See Light

Conservative New York audience applauds singers, boos director Robert Wilson’s radiant imagery at the Met.

Twenty-two years ago Robert Wilson–a young avant-garde director known for his surreal, visually stunning, glacially paced theater works that could last all night–made American operatic history at the Metropolitan Opera House.

He and the then still rigorously minimalist composer Philip Glass gave the American premiere of “Einstein on the Beach,” a wholly new kind of opera, in which fanciful imagery took precedence over plot. By now that kind of musical and theatrical thinking has so influenced American and world culture that it has even filtered all the way down to television commercials. And Wilson and Glass, meanwhile, are such international stars that UCLA proudly hopes for its own chapter in the music history books with the world premiere of the team’s latest radical operatic vision, “Monsters of Grace,” to open the renovated Royce Hall next month.

But such visionary thinking little penetrated the staunchly conservative Metropolitan Opera. Wilson and Glass had rented the theater, going broke in the process. And although the Met finally premiered its own, much more conventional Glass opera (“The Voyage”) in 1992, it dutifully resisted Wilson, even as he became an internationally celebrated director of standard opera.

Monday night all that changed when the Met finally unveiled its first Robert Wilson production, Wagner’s “‘Lohengrin.” Instead of the Met’s usual Wagnerian nature-painting backdrop, there were beams of radiant white light, abstract geometrical shapes and a field painting of rich, subtle hues of blue light played out on a large screen at the back of the stage.

During the 10 minutes or so of the prelude it seemed as if the meeting of Met and Wilson might produce some magic of historic proportion. James Levine’s Met orchestra is one of the company’s greatest assets these days, and the first notes it played, high in the strings, were all ethereal silver shimmer. As Wagner describes the Holy Grail in music that descends and climaxes, Wilson and his lighting designer, Heinrich Brunke, deliberately elevate a misty bar of pure light that turns cylindrical as it rises up the blue field. The effect was a mesmerizing trinity of music, color and shape, unrelated yet one.

There were many other fine moments in the production, which Levine conducted with consistent majesty. The Met is a large theater, and Wilson’s art is one of distancing and illusion. The set consisted of little more than bars of light that emerged vertically from the floor or glided in horizontally from the sides, meeting a right angles. There was a chair or two (Wilson is big on chairs). The swan that guides Lohengrin’s boat was represented by a single wing.

Wilson disembodies characters in drama. Each moves in his or her space. Contact is rare. I don’t recall Lohengrin and Elsa ever looking at each other, let alone touching, all evening–not at their wedding, not in their nuptial bed. This takes some getting used to, but it adds another dimension and can be unforgettable with the right singers.

Wagnerians were in bliss to hear Deborah Voigt sing her first Elsa and to have Ben Heppner, today’s reigning heldentenor, as Lohengrin. And to the pair’s credit, they seemed game to try all Wilson asked of them.

But they were also ill-suited to a production that asks that every aspect of opera be taken on its own terms. Frida Parmeggiani’s flowing costumes turn into drapery on the couple. And how effortful their stone-still standing seemed, to say nothing of their attempts to walk as if gliding.

All the effort also got in the way of the singing as well. Both have clarion voices, and the audience never had to worry about them singing. But we did have to worry when they knelt and had to get up again. And it is inevitable in such surroundings that the lack of grace in physical movement will translate into the perception of stolid, if not exactly clunky, musical phrasing.

One singer got it right, and she stole the show. Deborah Polaski, the American soprano mostly heard in Europe these days, was Ortrud, the sorceress who causes all the trouble for the pure-as-driven-snow Lohengrin and Elsa. In gorgeous violet and looking properly ghoulish, Polaski circled the action like a shark, then stopped and held a pose, hands outstretched, splayed fingers telling a story of their own. Her singing, too, was deeply satisfying, with all the fluidity and fire lacking in the other principals.

The three other men, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (Telramund), Eike Wilm Schulte (the Herald) and Eric Halfvarson (the King), also seemed theatrically game but were vocally undistinguished. And so too was the chorus, which always seemed to be in the way.

And what did the audience think? Thunderous bravos for Voigt and Heppner. Deep, sonorous, studied boos for Wilson. Although Wilson’s abstract, de-sexing of “Lohengrin” is by now a conservative notion, the Met audiences have shown little interest in any of the innovations that have transformed opera over the past half century, and they have dug their well-polished heels as deeply into the Manhattan pavement as they will go.

MARK SWED | March 11, 1998

Deseret News

Bravos and boos about equal in the Met’s `Lohengrin’

Boos and bravos rang out about evenly when Robert Wilson stepped forward for a curtain call after the Metropolitan Opera premiered his version of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

If controversy was what the staid old Met wanted, there was no better way to get it than hiring the famously far-out director to do one of his no-sets-just-lighting interpretations of the beloved romantic warhorse.But there may be less than meets the eye to the production that opened earlier this week.

With little but vertical and horizontal beams of light to divert attention, and characters confined to minimalist movements and intricate hand gestures, you might think the audience would be free to concentrate on the singing.

That would have been fine, since the singing – by tenor Ben Heppner as Lohengrin and soprano Deborah Voigt as Elsa – was some of the best heard in the house in years.

But Wilson keeps distracting us with all those colored shapes to guess at – is that dark vertical bar a tree? that white square a marriage bed? – all the while seeming to insist that the design is purely abstract with no representational value.

And the staging is deliberately quirky in this retelling of the fairytale story about a knight who comes to the rescue of a maiden in distress, then has to leave her when she can’t resist asking his name.

Lohengrin and the villainous Telramund barely make contact while fighting their duel in Act 1. After Lohengrin finally kills him in Act 3, Telramund gets up and walks offstage, instead of being carried by his henchmen. Elsa’s brother, freed at the end of the opera from the spell that has turned him into a swan, emerges not as a youth of 10 or 11 as he is usually portrayed, but as a toddler of barely 3.

(Speaking of the swan, it’s worth noting that Lohengrin does arrive and depart on a kind of swan boat, as called for in Wagner’s stage directions; the previous Met production dispensed with that.)

Oh, yes, the singing. Heppner, despite some trouble warming up, delivered on the promise he has shown in other roles in the house, like Walther in “Die Meistersinger,” with a sound of remarkable beauty and power. In his final narrative, “In fernem Land,” when most tenors tire, Heppner just seemed to grow stronger. No singer alive today can match this Lohengrin, and one waits eagerly for him to take on more Wagner roles.

Voigt is not far behind him. Her first Elsa in the house was a gem, with soaring high notes and delicate filigree – a voice in blooming health.

A voice in not such good health belongs to Deborah Polaski, but her riveting performance as the evil Ortrud made quibbles about her wobbly upper register almost irrelevant. She, more than any of the participants, seemed to thrive on Wilson’s direction, creating a most menacing character through her body language and hand movements.

As her husband Telramund, baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen frequently sounded raw and out of his depth. Bass Eric Halfvarson was a powerful King Henry.

James Levine had the Met orchestra playing almost at its best, some ragged ensembles aside. His pacing was too deliberate at times, missing, for instance, the irresistible sweep to the conclusion of Act 1.

Mike Silverman | March 14, 1998

The Wall Street Journal

Wilsonian Wagner

Director Robert Wilson’s theatrical style is about image, not content. It’s pointless to attempt to relate his emblems to anything concrete; one simply watches the images unfold–glacially–and reacts. Superimposing this style on a linear musical narrative can result in slow and excruciating audience torture, as it did in Mr. Wilson’s production of “Parsifal” at the Houston Grand Opera some years back. Or it can lead to something more engaging.

The latter was the case with Mr. Wilson’s “Lohengrin,” his debut production at the Metropolitan Opera. The director stripped away all the Romantic symbolism of Wagner’s 1850 work and so laid bare its underlying themes: the battle between Christianity and paganism, and Christianity’s insistence on unquestioning faith. This opera is about something much harder and more uncompromising than Lohengrin’s and Elsa’s love story. The wicked are punished mercilessly, but so are the doubters.

The curtain went up on a bare stage with a slightly raked black floor; a screen, suffused with blue light, filled the rear wall. During the Act I Prelude, a shimmering band of white light traveled up the screen. (Heinrich Brunke was the lighting designer.) The only set pieces and props in the show were wide single bars, lit white, that descended from the flies, rose from the floor, and emerged from the wings; a black stepladder-like object that became a throne for King Henry; a spindly, twisted chair; and a large swan’s wing that served as Lohengrin’s avian transport.

Mr. Wilson deployed people as visual objects. The male chorus, warriors in black robes with pointed helmets and needle-like spears, were planted across the rear of the stage. The King (Eric Halfvarson), in white makeup, held out a striped horizontal rod. Ortrud (Deborah Polaski), her pointed wig mirroring the warriors’ helmets, her chin tipped high, and her spread fingers lit purple, moved slowly around the stage, looking like what she is: the malignant spider whose corrupting influence has poisoned the land. By conjuring up an atmosphere of dread, the stage pictures lent unusual weight to Telramund’s false accusation–that Elsa (Deborah Voigt) murdered her brother–and made it clear that all forces were arrayed against her.

Other striking visual moments included Act II’s final tableau, when Elsa, who has entered the church with Lohengrin (Ben Heppner), looks back and sees Ortrud dragging a huge scarlet curtain from the wings. Costume designer Frida Parmeggiani’s trailing dresses for the women and Japanese-style robes for men were sculptural and striking. The only odd choice was putting Lohengrin into a black samurai robe like the bad guys–isn’t he supposed to stand out as the Christ figure? Perhaps Mr. Wilson wanted us to understand Elsa’s confusion and error. Or maybe he just wanted all the men in black.

To their immense credit, both Ms. Voigt and Mr. Heppner executed Mr. Wilson’s challenging movements with commitment. Ms. Voigt worked hard at the slow motion glide, with body slightly twisted, arms held in a single position, the train of her blue dress spreading out behind her, and similarly slow transformations of facial expression. In Act I, she looked like a sleepwalker, which makes perfect sense. Ms. Voigt and Mr. Heppner are large people, and this slow movement suited them better than sprints and gesticulation. It also suited the architecture of Wagner’s dramaturgy, which can seem fussy and trivial when performed naturalistically.

By doing away with naturalistic acting, Mr. Wilson also made the audience concentrate on the music and the words, and we were rewarded with some outstanding singing. Mr. Heppner is a remarkable heldentenor with a ringing sound that is clarion, warm and supported throughout the range. His Act III aria, “In fernem Land,” was especially lovely and expressive. We can look forward to his Walther in “Die Meistersinger” at the Met next month, and his first Tristan in Seattle this summer; it is probably fortunate that he is holding off on the two Siegfrieds for now, given those roles’ voice-wrecking tendencies, especially in big houses. Ms. Voigt sang with a creamy, pearling beauty, with eloquent phrasing and diction; her shining moment was the Act II duet with Ortrud.

The bad guys were also terrific singers. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a passionate and tormented Telramund, and Deborah Polaski (Ortrud) was as insinuating and savage vocally as she was in movement (she captured Mr. Wilson’s style best), though her final Act III outburst was shaky. Mr. Halfvarson and Eike Wilm Schulte did excellent work as King Henry and the Herald.

Not every aspect of Mr. Wilson’s concept succeeded. In the Act I duel between Telramund and Lohengrin, the two men circled each other slowly, in jarring defiance of the swift battle music. In the Act III bridal chamber scene, which cried out for a bit of naturalism, Mr. Heppner and Ms. Voigt circled each other slowly, never touching. Yet my frustration with this production lay less with Mr. Wilson than with James Levine, who, after a splendidly shaped Prelude and Act I, let the orchestra loose with vast waves of unstructured sound that forced the singers, especially Ortrud, Telramund and the chorus, to yell. There are those who claim that “Lohengrin” is essentially a bel canto work, but that is clearly not the case today at the Met. Though the orchestra is stunning in its virtuosity, Act II, with the exception of the Elsa-Ortrud scene, turned into a sustained and sometimes deafening rant and the ensembles fell apart. Mr. Wilson has done his bit to strip the tradition from Wagner; maybe it is time for Mr. Levine, who is unmatched when he engages intellectually with a score, to do the same.

HEIDI WALESON | March 16, 1998

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Matinee broadcast
A production by Robert Wilson (1998)