When the Metropolitan Opera announced that, after a century of touring, it would cancel its annual season in Washington, there seemed to be one bright spot in the general gloom: Washingtonians could confidently expect that they would never again see the Met's current (and longstanding) production of Wagner's "Lohengrin." A mediocre performance of that production opened the 1985 Met season here -- the last, as it turned out. It was an omen of that fateful run.
"Lohengrin" is essentially a manifesto on the need for trust, though in many performances the villains make a stronger impression than the hero and heroine. It is the story of a knight in shining armor who rescues a maiden in distress and then marries her on the condition that she never ask his name. She violates that condition (a lapse of trust precipitated by the villainess Ortrud), and he rides sadly off into the sunset on the swan that first brought him into the story.
It was a curious theme to appeal to Wagner, a shameless, egocentric, callous and prejudiced manipulator of nearly everyone he ever met. And it was an odd opera to open a Washington season that the Met knew (but long avoided mentioning) would be its last. But enough of that; we should have known better than to trust a "Lohengrin" production that never let us see its swan.
Now, "Lohengrin" is back in what looks like a multimedia blitz. It will be simulcast from 8 p.m. to midnight (that's right, four hours) on Channel 26, Maryland Public TV, WETA-FM, WBJC-FM and WGMS AM and FM. It may be possible to miss this show, but it won't be easy.
Fortunately, this "Lohengrin" (recognizably the same production, but with different and, on the whole, superior singers in the leading roles) is a significantly better experience than what happened last May 27 in Washington. Television can be thanked, largely, for the improvement. For one thing, the audience at home is not trapped between intermissions as it is in an opera house. In the middle of any number of arias, you can go out to the kitchen, fix a sandwich, come back and find that nothing much happened while you were gone. For another, on television nights the Met puts its best foot forward -- as it has not done consistently in most of its recent tours.
Knowing that this performance would be seen nationally and probably made available later in home video formats, the Met brought out its best available performers (including Peter Hofmann, Eva Marton, Leif Roar and Leonie Rysanek).
Music Director James Levine was in the pit for the performance, taped last January, and he definitely has a way with the music. He often chooses recklessly slow tempos, but he controls the music superbly and he brings out a texture of sound in which Wagnerian sensualists can simply wallow. The music is often imbued with what has been called a "silver scrim," an aura that almost seems to radiate light in the upper registers of the orchestral score, and this comes across well even on a television loudspeaker. It should be brilliant in the stereo simulcast.
Television's enhancement is even more crucial in what may be the most important single weakness of this production, the static stage direction. There are whole quarter-hours during which nothing on stage seems to move; the soloists are planted like trees singing at one another, surrounded by an enormous, motionless chorus that looks like a museum exhibit of medieval armor. The effect is not inappropriate with music that often seems to hang, glowing, like a tapestry, but it can get visually tedious. In the opera house, there's not much you can do about it, but on television the cameras (switching from panorama to close-up and cutting from face to face) often manages to convey an illusion of motion where no motion really exists.
There are some moments of breathtaking beauty in this opera and this production, and many fans will find them well worth all the waiting -- especially when they can use the fast-forward button on their VCRs.