A new 'Lohengrin,' threatened by war in Ukraine, comes to the Met

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A new 'Lohengrin,' threatened by war in Ukraine, comes to the Met
Piotr Beczala as the title character in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Jan. 21, 2023. Francois Girard’s staging of “Lohengrin,” originally a co-production with the Bolshoi Theater, arrives a year after its Moscow premiere, which coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone



NEW YORK, NY.- “Let me adjust it,” the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin said to Donald Palumbo, the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera, on a recent morning there. “I know how to adjust it.”

Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, was running through the first act of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” which opens in a new staging on Sunday. The score had come to a pianissimo — immediately after the title character, an otherworldly visitor to a divided land, comes to the rescue of Elsa and declares his love for her — and the chorus singers needed to alter their sound to accommodate the acoustics of their hooded costumes.

To the orchestra, Nézet-Séguin said, “I need this to be unbelievably soft.” Then, to the performers onstage, he asked for more power, and in a sign of solidarity, flipped the cap of his hoodie over his head. “Maybe it’s good if I do this,” he added, to laughter throughout the auditorium.

It was one of many lighthearted moments in the rehearsal process for this new “Lohengrin,” a production by François Girard that has otherwise had a difficult road to the Met. Developed in scattered homes and studios during the early coronavirus pandemic, it premiered last year in Moscow on Feb. 24 — the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Originally, the staging had been a coproduction between the Met and the Bolshoi Theater, conceived for Anna Netrebko, the now-fallen star soprano. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, flew to Moscow to attend a dress rehearsal; by the time he got back to New York, the invasion was underway.

In Russia, Girard had woken up on that Thursday in February, the day of the opening, thinking that war was a distant possibility. “I heard all the signs that it was coming, but there was also a common understanding that it was a bluff,” Girard recalled. And he had been occupied with the looming premiere: Rehearsals had been repeatedly thwarted by the worldwide wave of omicron variant infections (about half the Bolshoi chorus was out sick at any given moment); a skeleton staff of assistants; and the challenges of staging the first Wagner opera at the theater in nearly 50 years.

When Girard arrived at the Bolshoi that day, he was told about the invasion. There were tears in the theater. But the show went on, and was greeted by cheering ovations. It was a reminder, Girard recalled thinking, as Russians bowed onstage alongside Ukrainians, that “music and opera is one of those places where human beings meet.”

“It is our modern church, our modern chapel,” he added. “And at that moment, our chapel was on fire.”

Girard left Moscow on Saturday — a day earlier than planned. By Sunday, there were no more flights home. By Monday, Gelb had severed ties with Putin-affiliated Russian artists, and the new “Lohengrin” was in jeopardy.

Gelb backed out of the co-production agreement, a decision that, given U.S. sanctions, he said felt legally sound. “But,” he added, “that didn’t solve the problem of getting the scenery here. Even if we wanted to, the government wouldn’t allow anything to come in from Russia.”

The question was whether to move forward. The Met had a promising cast lined up already — including the sopranos Christine Goerke and Tamara Wilson, along with the tenor Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin — and had just announced its coming season. It couldn’t simply revive its Robert Wilson production, a troubled, difficult one that hadn’t been put on since 2006 and whose scenery had begun to disintegrate in storage. So Gelb decided that Girard’s staging would have to be rebuilt from scratch, which would add over $1 million to the show’s budget.

Now, Girard’s production joins two other Wagner works that he has directed at the Met: a critically adored “Parsifal” from 2013 and a much less loved “Der Fliegende Holländer,” whose opening night in 2020 was bedeviled by noise disruptions and technical problems, and whose run was quickly cut short by the pandemic shutdown of performing arts. (Girard’s “Holländer” will return to the Met in late May, revised by him; between “Lohengrin” and that production he will stage “The Hunting Gun” with Miki Nakatani and Mikhail Baryshnikov.)

Gelb has been working with Girard since the 1990s, when Gelb was an executive at Sony and Girard was making the movie “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.” They later collaborated on “The Red Violin,” with Gelb suggesting the composer John Corigliano to write a time- and world-traveling soundtrack to be performed by the violinist Joshua Bell.

During Gelb’s tenure at the Met, which began in 2006, he has phased out nearly all of the older productions of Wagner’s 10 canonical operas, which had been staged with old-fashioned naturalism and grandeur by Otto Schenk. (Even the replacements are beginning to be replaced, with a “Tristan und Isolde” coming soon from Yuval Sharon, and a new “Ring” cycle beginning in 2027.) So far, Girard’s “Parsifal” has been the most successful among them.

And this “Lohengrin” is being treated as a sequel. Girard said that he sees all of Wagner’s mature operas as “a grand fresco,” and these two are more related than any of the others. “Lohengrin” was written long before “Parsifal” but takes place long after; Lohengrin is Parsifal’s son.

During the glassy, ethereal Prelude of “Lohengrin,” the moon is shown repeatedly rising, first slowly, then rapidly, indicating the passage of time. Although the scenic design — a little bit “Star Wars” and a little bit DeviantArt, by Tim Yip, the Academy Award-winning designer of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — bears little resemblance to the “Parsifal” set, Lohengrin enters wearing the same black trousers and white button-down shirt of the grail knights in that opera.

“He comes from the other production,” Girard said. “It’s almost like we went down a hill, but we’re still looking at the same sky.”

Lohengrin comes, as well, from a more divine realm to save Elsa from persecution amid conflict and mercurial alliances — between paganism and monotheism, between the Holy Roman Empire and opposing forces. To reflect the shifting allegiance of the masses, Yip has created hooded robes that, through precise choreography and with the help of magnets, can be configured to reveal an inner layer of red, green or white, colors matched to specific leaders.

This opera and “Parsifal” are also musically related — particularly in their Preludes, Nézet-Séguin said. “It’s the music of the otherworldly,” he added. “It’s something that’s almost suspended in air.”

But where “Parsifal” exists purely in the domain of the “immaterial,” he said, “Lohengrin” alternates between the harmonic language of its title hero and the more earthbound music of the other characters. On Sunday, Nézet-Séguin will have conducted the two works at the Met; he said that while he considers “Parsifal” a work of genius, “‘Lohengrin’ is more relatable because you get the best of both worlds.”

Existing somewhere between those two moods, too, is Beczala as Lohengrin. More known for the Italian repertoire, he took on this, his sole Wagnerian role, in 2017 at the urging of the conductor Christian Thielemann at the Semperoper Dresden in Germany; he had recently sung some operetta, and Thielemann told him, “There’s not a huge difference from Lehár to Wagner.”

Now, Beczala is singing in his fourth “Lohengrin” production, and his third new one. He said that he approaches the role by incorporating elements from others he has played. “There are moments,” he added, “where I can get a little from ‘Ballo,’ or ‘Rusalka.’ The prince in ‘Rusalka’ and Lohengrin actually have nearly the same tessitura, so I can build on my experience.”

For his part, Nézet-Séguin welcomes Beczala’s sound. “He never saw himself as a Wagner tenor,” Nézet-Séguin said. “But there is a luminous quality in his voice — a lot of light, like sunshine. He can float it, but he can also bring in the heroic aspects. That’s hard, and it’s what we need for this role.”

Nézet-Séguin believes that Beczala could sing Parsifal one day. Hopefully, he said, it would be at the Met, which after Sunday will be capable of presenting Girard’s “Parsifal” and “Lohengrin” productions in repertory, an idea that was already being talked about at rehearsals this week.

“To do these two operas together would be a real experience,” Nézet-Séguin said. “This production is so well thought of as the sequel to ‘Parsifal,’ and I love this idea — that you could be reading two huge chapters of the same story.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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