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A Cosmic Wagner at the Met

Wagner’s “Lohengrin” is up next for The MET Live in HD at Fort Lewis College. (Courtesy)
Waiting for a prince to show up

Opera lovers rejoice. The Met Live in HD starts at 10 a.m. Saturday and runs almost five hours.

Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” that devilishly long story about a handsome knight who saves a damsel in distress, as well as a kingdom and Christianity, will challenge your stamina.

For opera stalwarts, anything by Wagner is a test of fandom. It’s been 17 years since the Met last staged the behemoth “Lohengrin,” and it now has an entirely new look. No more old-fashioned naturalism. Imagine abstract, cosmic grandeur.

Director François Girard has fashioned a very contemporary tale of Parsifal’s son. Girard has collaborated with the designer Tim Yip, the multidisciplinary artist who won an Oscar for art direction in the high-flying 2000 movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Don’t expect any flying sopranos or tenors jumping from treetops, but the staging will suggest danger and otherworldliness.

The story centers on a medieval legend. Lohengrin is an ethereal knight who rescues Elsa, a maiden falsely accused of murder. His condition is that she never ask his name or origin. Beyond that intimate nugget, much more is at stake – nation-building and championing Christianity over paganism.

Set in the 10th century, political disorder and human strife abound in Brabant (modern day Belgium), a kingdom where Gottfried, the heir to the throne, has been killed. His sister, the aforenamed Elsa, is charged with her brother’s murder.

Spoiler alert, in case you can’t stay the full five hours, Gottfried isn’t dead, he’s only under Ortrud’s evil spell. Elsa, in her defense, testifies that she has dreamed of a mystical knight who will arrive, redeem her good name and save the kingdom. As she prays, Lohengrin suddenly appears – with his admonition: Don’t ask. Don’t tell. A struggle ensues between Lohengrin and Ortrud’s villainous husband, Telramund. Lohengrin proclaims Elsa’s innocence, love flourishes and a wedding is planned.

That’s Act I, and it lasts a mere 90 minutes. By modern standards, the opera could end there. But Telramund and Ortrud aren’t finished. They sow distrust and try to stop the wedding. Uneasily the marriage proceeds, but the kingdom’s people are suspicious. By Act III, Elsa can’t bear not knowing her husband’s name, so you may guess what happens. It’s the stuff of fairy tales and includes everything from a funeral, brother Gottfried and the Holy Grail.

Wagner’s 1850 blockbuster music-drama has a score that covers everything. The composer also wrote his own libretto, as he did for all his operas. “Lohengrin” is based on a known medieval legend about the struggle between paganism and Christianity. Wagner’s version combined numerous sources, and the idea of a larger-than-life hero asking that his name and origin never be revealed suggests a connection to the divine. That’s storytelling.

If you go

WHAT: The MET Live in HD presents “Lohengrin,” by Richard Wagner.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Vallecito Room, Fort Lewis College Student Union, 1000 Rim Drive.

ADMISSION: Individual tickets: adults $28, seniors $25, $24 Met member, $12 students.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.metopera.org and www.durangoconcerts.org or call 247-7657.

NOTE: Sung in German with English subtitles. Running time: Four hours, 45 minutes.

Tenor Piotr Beczala sings the title role. Soprano Tamara Wilson portrays Elsa. The juicy villainous roles of Ortrud and Telramund belong to Christine Goerke and Evheny Nikitin.

Somewhat controversial according to press accounts, is Girard’s use of color coding throughout. Everything green symbolizes the kingdom fighting off the coming invasion from the east. Red is the color of the people under the spell of Telramund and Ortrud. White, no surprise, stands for purity and innocence, so Elsa and Lohengrin wear white, she in a timeless chemise, he in modern white shirt and dress slacks.

Lighthearted comments aside, the Met’s production of “Lohengrin,” with its deep connection to the Russia-Ukraine War and its intrinsic plea to restore order, cannot be dismissed. For all its density, length and fantasy, it speaks to our time in a most unusual way.

The next Live in HD features Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and it runs a mere two hours and 45 minutes, a light entertainment.

Once upon a time in Moscow

Originally, The Met’s production of “Lohengrin” was a collaboration with Russia’s Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Director François Girard was there for opening night, February, 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The Met-Bolshoi collaboration abruptly ended.

The Met’s Director Peter Gelb, disassociated himself from the Russian company but not to shelve the whole project for a New York production in 2023. The original sets could not leave Russia because of U.S. sanctions in response to the war. So, sets and costumes had to be reconstructed. According to Joshua Barone of The New York Times, Feb. 23, that decision added a million dollars to the Met’s budget. The Met cast was already in place and under contract. “Lohengrin” opened on Feb. 26, a few days after to the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.