It’s been 25 years since the Metropolitan Opera last put on a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin. That was Robert Wilson’s now-infamous production, with its floating bars of light and trance-like movements that caused a scandal. But time has exonerated Wilson’s production, now heralded as an avant-garde classic. I wouldn’t bet on anybody saying the same of François Girard’s new production, which is a shame given the high quality of the music-making on display. 

Tamara Wilson (Elsa), Piotr Beczała (Lohengrin), Günther Groissböck (Heinrich) and ensemble
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Girard’s Parsifal, premiered at the Met in 2013, was a revelation, projecting the director’s cosmic films onto a post-apocalyptic landscape. Lohengrin follows the same idea but the bleak, ambiguous poetry of Girard’s earlier production has been replaced with something that more resembles a low-budget 70s fantasy film. When the curtain rises, we’re underground in a concrete bunker, a rising moon visible through a hole in the sky. It’s a beautiful, striking image – but then Girard adds more and more moons, careening across the stage increasingly quickly until they explode into red smoke at the climax of the prelude. It’s like watching a screensaver from inside a toilet bowl.

Günther Groissböck (Heinrich)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Aesthetics aside, the production is hampered by a lack of direction for the cast and chorus, most of whom resort to an old-fashioned park-and-bark approach. The chorus, glorious in the richness and discipline of their sound, are saddled with colour-coded robes that, when opened, resemble flying squirrels. Poor Christine Goerke is saddled with the very worst of Girard’s ideas, swirling her red cape through a sea of dry ice and pulling glowing red crystals from her bosom during the third act prelude. I don't think I've ever heard the audience laugh so much at a Wagner opera. It´s a particular shame because Goerke sounds better than ever, chewing the scenery and spitting out the text with aplomb. While her vibrato has loosened and her high notes require effort, her powerful middle voice has a breadth and impact that’s utterly thrilling.

Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

As her husband Telramund, Evgeny Nikitin started out excitingly, but the role lies marginally high for his bass-baritone and by the end of the second act his tone had turned dry. Similarly, bass Günther Groissböck alternated moments of sonorous legato singing with muffled, dry singing, though dramatically he was suitably authoritative as King Heinrich. Brian Mulligan impressed as his Herald, with a rounded, burnished baritone.

But it was the lead couple that impressed the most, particularly Piotr Beczała’s burnished, bel canto Lohengrin. This is Beczała’s first German role at the Met, but his Italianate timbre works beautifully and he sings tirelessly with elegant, bronzed tone. He also looks suitably heroic in his simple white shirt, an effective contrast from the pleated robes of the rest of the cast. He was at his best in the third act love duet with Tamara Wilson’s Elsa, with both singers filling the auditorium with silvery tone.

Tamara Wilson (Elsa) and Piotr Beczała (Lohengrin)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Wilson must have the most varied repertoire of any soprano singing today, performing everything from Verdi’s Elvira to Turandot to great acclaim. Elsa is her second major Wagner role after a successful outing as Isolde, and her silvery soprano, while not large, projects effectively. She can spin a phrase beautifully, with some lovely high pianissimi in her two arias, but there’s also plenty of metal to her sound – her high Bs in the final act were utterly glorious.

Günther Groissböck (Heinrich) and Met Opera Chorus
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin may have had more outfit changes than the cast, but there was no doubting the seriousness of his conducting. His Wagner was spacious, translucent, but with enough momentum to carry the drama through. A few messy moments aside, the orchestra was on fantastic form, brass blazing through the iridescent string harmonics. Tenor Leo Slezak famously once asked when the next swan was leaving; let's hope Girard's production leaves very soon indeed.