NEW YORK — 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.