Philippe Auguin
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
29 April 2006
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerRené Pape
LohengrinBen Heppner
Elsa von BrabantKarita Mattila
Friedrich von TelramundRichard Paul Fink
OrtrudLuana DeVol
Der Heerrufer des KönigsEike Wilm Schulte
Vier brabantische EdleGioacchino Li Vigni
Eduardo Valdes
Brian Davis
Richard Vernon
The New York Times

In ‘Lohengrin,’ Robert Wilson Paints Wagner’s Realm With an Abstract Palette

It stands to reason that a high-concept new production at the Metropolitan Opera might take time to settle in and refine itself. The best example in recent years is Robert Wilson’s staging of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

The revival that opened on Monday night, winning huge ovations, especially for the tenor Ben Heppner as the grail knight Lohengrin and the soprano Karita Mattila as the innocent Elsa, is not the same show that earned Mr. Wilson lusty boos when the production was unveiled in March 1998. Back then the abstract scenic designs, a Wilson trademark, made for some haunting, mystical Wagnerian imagery: against a backdrop with shifting hues of blue, gray and green, slowly moving luminous white rectangular beams crisscross the bare stage. Still, the glacial movements of the singers and the highly stylized hand and arm gestures made everyone look terribly uncomfortable.

When the production returned the next season, the stylized movements had been simplified. On Monday the movements of the cast were simpler still, and the scenic designs as beautiful as ever. Finally, the astute concept behind Mr. Wilson’s staging came through.

Directors who approach Wagner naturalistically have the challenge of figuring out what to do with the singers during the long stretches between vocal phrases, when the orchestra ruminates on whatever has just been said.

How, for example, do you stage the melodramatic moment when the sorceress Ortrud, up to no good, addresses Elsa, the secretive Lohengrin’s bride-to-be, and Elsa answers, “Who calls my name in that tone of despair?” In this staging, Ms. Mattila sings the phrase while frozen in a posture of transfixing concern.

To cite another example, Mr. Wilson’s stylizations eliminate the need to have two big-bodied singers, Mr. Heppner and the baritone Richard Paul Fink as his nemesis, the power-hungry count Telramund, engage in a sword fight. Instead, they circle each other with stylized wariness, as a silver spear hovers over their heads.

If the singers seemed self-conscious with their movements at times, for the most part Mr. Wilson’s direction empowered them to give bold performances, especially Mr. Heppner. Many heldentenors are actually pushed-up baritones. Mr. Heppner is the real thing, a tenor with a clarion top range and a bright ping in his sound. His voice faltered a couple of times in the punishing Act III monologue, in which Lohengrin reveals the secrets of his origin and the reason for his mission. But it hardly mattered. This was a heroic and thrilling performance.

Ms. Mattila’s singing unusually combines cool Nordic colorings with visceral emotional intensity. She was in her glory as Elsa. Coming off her winning Met portrayal of Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” where she acted with affecting naturalness, she was equally riveting, and stunningly beautiful, working within Mr. Wilson’s stylized concept.

Making her Met debut well into her career, the American soprano Luana DeVol sang Ortrud. Though her voice was sometimes tremulous and hard-edged, she sang with fiery abandon and cut through the orchestra with slicing high notes. Despite some hammy Cruella DeVil moments, she bravely embraced the concept and was a wonderfully malevolent presence. Mr. Fink and the baritone Eike Wilm Schulte, as the king’s herald, were also strong. Substituting for the bass-baritone Stephen West, who was ill, Andrew Greenan made his Met debut as King Henry, singing with robust sound until his voice tired in the last act.

Though James Levine had been scheduled to conduct this revival, Philippe Auguin proved an exciting substitute who drew a shimmering, surely paced and incisive performance from the orchestra and chorus. Mr. Auguin has a history of saving the day for Mr. Levine. He made his Met debut in 2001, conducting the new production of Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” after Mr. Levine withdrew.

Over all, the simpler this production becomes, the better it seems. Even Mr. Wilson, who was in the audience, would probably agree.

ANTHONY TOMMASINI | Published: April 19, 2006

Financial Times

The Metropolitan Opera is a company that, for better or worse, wants a tree to resemble a tree. A swan is certainly supposed to look like a swan. Robert Wilson offered a notable exception to the rule, however, with his abstraction of Lohengrin, last seen in 1998. Essentially it is a lovely light-show with music.

The current revival, witnessed on Saturday, seems a bit less strict than the original. Just a bit. The stage remains bare, apart from two quasi-chairs and geometric slabs that occasionally descend from the flies. Wilson, who doesn’t worry about story-telling, reduces his players to zombies, robots and singing statues. Fingers crucially splayed, they strike awkward poses, even on the infrequent occasions when they move. Forbidden to gaze at each other, much less touch, they contradict emotional urgency. Unaccustomed to such modernism, the audience reads the translations dutifully, listens earnestly, waits patiently, claps.

Any action has to be sonic. Philippe Auguin, who has inherited this assignment from the ailing James Levine, conducts with sweep and cohesion, accompanies even the frailest voice sensitively and ultimately slights grandeur. Klaus Florian Vogt, the odd Lohengrin, introduces the sort of resources one associates with a modest Tamino. Lyrical literally to a fault, he looks boyish, sounds sweet and rides the climaxes with effort. Call him a Heldencrooner.

With such a partner, Karita Mattila’s radiant Elsa sounds doubly imposing, and occasional strain at the top becomes insignificant. Although Luana DeVol’s soprano is now a thing of shreds and patches, she communicates Ortrud’s menace with compelling glee. René Pape intones Heinrich’s royal platitudes handsomely, appears bored. Richard Paul Fink conveys the villainous grumblings of Telramund with gusto, even when discomfited by a histrionic straitjacket. Eike Wilm Schulte is assertive in the Herald’s passive duties. Assembled at the rear, the frozen chorus musters heated commentary. In Wilson’s world it cannot be easy for anyone to sort poetry from silliness. ★★★☆☆

Martin Bernheimer |May 8, 2006

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 293 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Robert Wilson (1998)