Great moments in opera: Lohengrin

February 10, 2010

I am trying to understand what Wagner is getting at in Lohengrin.  It is the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to defend a woman in peril, asserting just one peculiar condition: that she not ask his name.  She agrees, but, poisoned by doubts sown by a jealous rival, she breaks faith with him, and he departs in sorrow.  As he goes, he restores to her a brother who has long been lost in enchantment, which turns her faithlessness, retrospectively, into something of a felix culpa.

There are different ways to read it, I suppose.  The mysterious stranger, walking among the people like a god among men, may represent the romantic Artist, who is in, but not of, the commonplace world.  Or it could be seen as a dramatization of the conflict between Christianity and the dark gods of Germanic lore — a conflict which is explicit in the libretto — and about the ultimate defeat of the latter by the former.  Or the story could be read an an allegory of the Incarnation of Christ, with whom intimacy can only be maintained on the basis of faith.  To be honest, I’m not sure how to see it.  It is always possible that it is a good story, and nothing else, but with Wagner one doubts that such a simple interpretation does justice to his intentions.

The most famous music from Lohengrin is undoubtedly the Act III chorus Treulich Geführt Ziehet Dahin, known in English as “Here Comes the Bride”.  Pride of second place probably goes to the opera’s orchestral prelude, which has become a popular free-standing piece.  I have chosen three other excerpts to highlight here.

In the first Act, Elsa stands accused of murdering her brother in order to secure political power for herself.  The King, seeing that she denies the charge, decrees that the matter should be settled by combat, and asks each side in the dispute to name a champion.  Elsa kneels and, over the beautiful orchestral “Grail music”, she recounts a dream she had of a glorious knight sent from heaven to defend her cause.  (This, of course, is Lohengrin himself, who will shortly arrive on a boat drawn by a swan.)  This aria, Einsam in Trüben Tagen (or, more informally, “Elsa’s Dream”), is a pool of calm, but a rapturous calm.  Here it is, sung by Karita Mattila in a production from the Paris Opera (text with English translation; scroll down):

Lohengrin does appear, and he does vindicate Elsa, and in consequence he obtains her hand in marriage.  As the wedding approaches, however, Elsa’s enemies are working hard to destroy her happiness.  Lohengrin has said that no-one, not even Elsa, may ask his name or where he comes from, and this odd condition is used as leverage to sow doubt in Elsa’s mind about the fidelity and goodness of her champion.  The wedding takes place in any case, and the two lovers retire to their bed chamber, where they sing a gorgeous and tender love duet, Das süße Lied verhallt.  This marital harmony is soon to be destroyed by Elsa’s doubts, but it is beautiful while it lasts.  Here is the duet, sung by Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer in a 1990 production from Vienna (text with English translation):

Before long, Elsa begins to question Lohengrin about his name and his provenance, and so, in keeping with his original conditions, Lohengrin prepares to depart forever.  Before he goes he sings a “spill the beans” aria, In Fernen Land, in which he reveals to everyone that he is the son of Parsifal, and a Knight of the Holy Grail.  The tremendous power of his knightly order is effective only as long as its source — the Grail itself — remains a secret.  His name, he says, is Lohengrin.  This aria has a claim to be the dramatic high point of the opera, and it is a musical high point as well.  Listen especially to the section in which he speaks his name for the first time (at about the 5 minute mark in this excerpt).  Here is the aria, sung by Paul Frey at a Bayreuth production (text with English translation; scroll down):

Of the Wagner operas — or “music dramas”, as he preferred — that I have heard, Lohengrin is among my favourites.  The music is sometimes very grand, but not tipping over into bombast, and it is illuminated from within by a shimmering beauty.  I enjoyed revisiting it very much.  I watched a DVD performance of Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera, with Peter Hofmann singing Lohengrin, and I listened again to the famous recording made by Rudolf Kempe in 1963.  Both were excellent.

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