From the Archives: Lohengrin at the Met
By Peter Clark
Lohengrin stands out among Wagner’s operas as the one that broadly transcends musical tastes and, especially in the past, appealed to audiences who otherwise preferred Italian or French opera. And so it was that Lohengrin was produced in Italian translation for the very first Metropolitan Opera season in 1883 with Italo Campanini (pictured below) in the title role and the company prima donna Christine Nilsson as Elsa. It was the first and only Wagner opera performed at the Met that season, and the first time the orchestra played from a pit, as the musicians formerly played at audience level. For the company’s first 25 years or more, Lohengrin would prove to be one of the most popular operas in the repertory no matter whether an Italian or German troupe was in residence.
After seven seasons of German opera from 1884 to 1891, when Wagner’s works were repertory mainstays, the Met returned to Italian opera in the fall of 1891. Lohengrin again was heard in Italian with superstar singers in the cast, beginning with Jean de Reszke, the most famous tenor of the day, and including the young American soprano Emma Eames as Elsa, and the tenor’s brother, Édouard de Reszke, as King Heinrich. The de Reszke brothers would dominate their respective roles in Lohengrin for the subsequent decade, singing in the original German after 1896. Eames too would be a frequent Elsa at the Met, though another American, Lillian Nordica (pictured below), surpassed her in sheer numbers by singing the role 56 times in roughly the same time period.
By 1908, a year of transformative change in Met management, Lohengrin had been staged in every Met season to date and racked up 240 performances, more than any other opera except Gounod’s Faust, which had scored 255. After an absence of one season in 1908–09, Lohengrin returned to the repertory and remained there until 1917, when the Met banned German opera during America’s involvement in World War I. Once wartime emotions calmed in 1920, the Met staged a new production of Lohengrin, for the first time in English. The production, with sets by Joseph Urban, was favorably received and starred the Anglo-American Florence Easton as Elsa and German Johannes Sembach in the title role, under the baton of the chief conductor of the German wing, Artur Bodanzky.
Again Lohengrin played regularly at the Met, reverting to German after 1922. It then enjoyed a new era as an audience favorite when the most renowned Wagnerian duo in the company’s history sang the opera together from 1935 to 1941. Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s 1935 debut in Die Walküre marked the beginning of a new heyday of Wagner performances at the Met. Her partner, Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior, had actually made his debut in 1930 as Lohengrin, a role he would continue singing until 1950 and for which he holds the record of 68 Met performances. Both singers (pictured above) possessed voices that were not only powerful but extraordinarily beautiful. Together they created a golden era for Wagner at the Met, with Lohengrin as one of their mutual triumphs.
Even after Flagstad left America, Lohengrin continued at the Met, often with Melchior joined by Astrid Varnay or Helen Traubel as Elsa. Curiously, World War II did not produce a public backlash against Germanic cultural icons, and Lohengrin was only absent for a single season while the battles raged. It was not until the postwar period that Lohengrin ceased to be an annual part of the Met’s repertory. Still regarded as a masterpiece, it continued to be performed, but less frequently—a trend that has continued to the present.
For the Met’s opening season in the new opera house at Lincoln Center (1966–67), Lohengrin received its first new production since 1920. The new Lohengrin marked the first and only staging at the Met by Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson and the director who had transformed production style at the Bayreuth Festival in the 1950s. Wieland’s production (pictured at the top of this page) was clearly modeled on the one he had staged in Bayreuth, but he died before rehearsals began, and his assistant recreated his work for the Met. It was the Met’s introduction to a spare, new directorial style, with minimal scenery, chorus formally lined up and immobile, and an emphasis on lighting. Even with the expert conducting of Karl Böhm and a solid cast, neither critics nor public were enthusiastic, and the production was only revived one season, then replaced in 1976.
In that year, director August Everding, set designer Ming Cho Lee, and costume designer Peter J. Hall provided a handsome new production (pictured above) in a more traditional vein, with James Levine on the podium. Though the Everding production only received three revivals, they were high profile performances. The 1984 season-opening performance of Lohengrin marked the first time Plácido Domingo sang a Wagner role at the Met and the Spanish tenor’s burnished, Latinate timbre brought a new dimension to the title role. Among his collaborators were Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Elsa, and a thrilling new Hungarian soprano, Eva Marton, as Ortrud. James Levine conducted.
The following season brought another prominent Lohengrin cast, this time it was the suave young German tenor Peter Hofmann as the swan knight, Marton crossing over to sing Elsa, and veteran soprano Leonie Rysanek, previously a renowned Elsa, now as an electrifying Ortrud. (Hofmann and Marton are pictured above.) Levine again led the performance, which was telecast on PBS.
After these prominent performances, Lohengrin was not scheduled for 12 years, until a new production by Robert Wilson in 1998. It seemed like déjà vu of the reaction to Wieland Wagner’s 1967 production. Like Wieland, Wilson had built a reputation for spare, highly stylized productions in Europe before making his Met debut. Lighting was again of prime importance, as was a static chorus, and this time, Kabuki style costumes and make-up with slow, angular movements by the protagonists. Audience and critics echoed the negative opinions of 1967, though those softened at the revivals in 1998 and 2007. Canadian tenor Ben Heppner sang the title role in each of these, with Deborah Polaski as Ortrud. Deborah Voigt sang Elsa in the premiere production, and Karita Mattila had a notable success as Elsa in both revivals, as did German bass René Pape as King Heinrich in 1998. (Heppner and Mattila are pictured above.) Levine conducted the new production premiere and the first revival, and Philippe Auguin the final revival. Though the present 14-year absence of Lohengrin from the Met’s repertory is the longest in the company’s history, it remains the most performed Wagner opera at the Met, with 618 presentations to date.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives