By Alex Ross

A remarkable sound came from the audience during a recent curtain call at the Metropolitan Opera. To call it booing doesn’t do it justice: this was a penetrating moan, a wailing of mostly male Wagnerites in spiritual pain. It descended on Robert Wilson, the director of a new production of “Lohengrin,” as he took a bow with the visibly shell-shocked singers who had moon-walked and baby-stepped across the stage all evening, in accordance with his designs. The noise was unearthly enough to sound like the reawakened and newly articulate spirit of the late Sir Rudolf Bing, who had planned the modern Met more as a showcase for big voices than as a showcase for big ideas. A change has come over the Met in the last few years: the house that made a cliché of the phrase “bastion of conservatism” has become, if not a hotbed of radicalism, then a place that gets an occasional thrill out of risk.

The first clear sign of a sort of New Zaniness at the Met was Francesca Zambello’s de(con)struction of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” in 1992. The bombed-out Gothic look of that production riled up the audience so much that a truly conservative management would have backed off. But the odd threesome that runs the Met—Joseph Volpe, the general manager; James Levine, the artistic director; and Bruce Crawford, the éminence grise of the governing board—has not backed off. The Zeffirelli spectaculars of the eighties, with their mountains of realist bric-a-brac, no longer set the tone of the house. This season has brought a “Samson et Dalila” drenched in gorgeous swaths of Matisse-like orange and blue; an overblown but highly amusing surrealist take on “La Cenerentola”; a coolly expressionistic “Rake’s Progress,” transferred to a twenties Berlin climate; and now this “Lohengrin,” which is just the kind of cryptic, minimal, vaguely subversive, and, it must be said, not particularly expensive-looking production that often graces the stages of Europe.

The curtain rises, a lot of blue, which represents...the sky, the void, l’espace, die Leere, or, perhaps, the ordinary Macintosh screen on which I am typing. A blurry band of white rises through the blue, making the L.E.D. screen into a Rothko. Straight white beams slowly move in from the top and the side—like Barnett Newman stripes laid across the Rothko. Or what have you. The spectacle is interesting for a few minutes. The real shock comes in the ensuing hours, as these same beams move up and down, in and out, over and over again. A misshapen chair or a swan’s wing occasionally appears, but Wilson never lets go of his well-worn abstractions. You have precious little to look at as the quarter hours go by. And when some small event does occur—when, say, the scheming Ortrud wanders to one side and starts pawing at the proscenium—it is distracting, in the way that the motions of a floor polisher can become deeply interesting during a long wait in an airport lounge.

The singers move slo-o-owly, as any Wilson singer must. This style was perfected in tandem with the great Philip Glass spectacles of the seventies and eighties, notably “Einstein on the Beach.” Glass’s fast, static music helps Wilson’s motions make some kind of sense; Wagner’s slow, transformative music does not. Wagner imposes enough hardships on singers to make Wilson’s frozen Kabuki poses seem a touch sadistic. My heart sank every time the large-voiced, large-framed Deborah Voigt had to creep onstage, her arms locked in an attitude that recalled Washington crossing the Delaware. Each of her entrances felt like the recurrence of a nightmare. A Wilson fanatic might argue that her pose is symbolic of the unhappy condition of Elsa, who is betrothed to Lohengrin and yet is forbidden to know his name. But we don’t learn enough about the characters to make any associative leaps. The opera was peopled by Slow-Moving Woman, Man with Spearlike Tube, Angry Woman in Purple, Angry Man in Black, and White-Faced, Apparently Important Man. The music had nothing to say about them.

This production fell right on the line between failure and fraud. Still, I admire the Met for taking the risk. At least something theatrical is happening in Bing’s big opera barn, even if it takes the form of entire balconies of opera fanatics booing their hearts out because nothing is happening onstage. The disaster of this “Lohengrin”—and I must acknowledge that some people actually liked it, among them, according to the Post, Wagner’s great-granddaughter Eva—should not detract from a generally strong run of new productions this season. The Met seems to have developed excellent relationships with directors like Jonathan Miller and Elijah Moshinsky, who are able to deploy bold scenic concepts without discarding such anachronisms as character and plot. Moshinsky’s “Samson,” which just closed, was a real triumph—a deft balancing of giant abstract forms and athletic choreography. Let’s hope the encounter with Robert Wilson turns out to be a one-night stand.

There was, by the way, some splendid playing and singing on opening night, even though it all seemed very far away—almost offstage. (Offstage was where the famous wedding march remained.) James Levine pointed up contrasts more surely than he has done in his past Wagnerthons; this “Lohengrin” and last spring’s “Ring” have shown him at his peak as a Wagnerian. Voigt started out with a few uncharacteristically cautious, tremulous high notes—possibly the result of physical discomfort—but managed to get across the forceful elegance of her voice by Act III. Deborah Polaski, with her hard-edged, sometimes erratic soprano, was a good fit for the hard-edged, erratic Ortrud, and her long experience with Eurotrash productions made her seem quite at home in this one. Eric Halfvarson used his exceptionally broad-ranging bass to good effect as King Henry. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, as Telramund, was the weak link, hollering a bit in the upper register and groping in the lower.

The redeemer of the night was Ben Heppner, whose increasingly heroic tenor cut through all the Wilson weirdness. He came to the very edge of the stage to sing his closing monologue, “In fernem Land”: the voice was full and close, even in a melancholy sotto voce. Something in his bearing seemed to say: Forget what’s behind me—imagine a far-off land where “Lohengrin” makes sense. A few days later, Heppner appeared in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Julius Rudel, and sang, among other things, “In fernem Land”; the great monologue “Nur eine Waffe taugt,” from “Parsifal”; and the splendid Wagnerian finale of Richard Strauss’s first opera, “Guntram.” Heppner sounded severely strained at first and then seemed to thrill in the recovery from crisis. Parsifal’s command “Uncover the Grail! Open the shrine!” rang out with a trace of fury—a welcome sign of turbulence in this sometimes too even-tempered singer. Heppner is the herald of a new generation of singers who can really sing Wagner and not just scream

We are still looking for a new generation of Wagner directors who can direct.