Radio New Zealand Concert network
Wednesday 11th of February 2015 at 8 till midnight or later
WAGNER: Lohengrin, an opera in three acts
King's Herald................... Brian Mulligan
King Heinrich................... Kristinn Sigmundsson
Telramund........................ Gerd Grochowski
Ortrud............................... Petra Lang
Elsa................................... Camilla Nylund
Lohengrin......................... Brandon Jovanovich
Nobles of Brabant............ Nathaniel Peake,
...Robert Watson, Joo Won Kang,
...Ryan Kuster, Ivan Kiryakin
Gottfried von Brabant...... Dylan Zorn
San Franscico Opera Chorus & Orch/Nicola Luisotti
(San Francisco Opera)
Sunday 24 November 2013 at 3.03 - 6.35 pm
WAGNER: Lohengrin, an opera in three acts
Lohengrin......................... Jonas Kaufmann
Elsa of Brabant................. Annette Dasch
Ortrud............................... Evelyn Herlitzius
Friedrich........................... Tomas Tomasson
Heinrich............................ René Pape
King's Herald................... Zeljko Lucic
La Scala Chorus & Orch/Daniel Barenboim
(recorded in La Scala, Milan by Italian Radio)
Sunday 2nd of December 2012 at 3.03 - 6.40 pm
WAGNER: Lohengrin, an opera in three acts
King Henry.................. Günther Groissböck
Lohengrin.................... Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa.............................. Annette Dasch
Telramund.................... Gerd Grochowski
Ortrud.......................... Susanne Resmark
Herald.......................... Markus Brück
Berlin Radio Choir & SO/Marek Janowski
(Pentatone PCT 5186 403)
Health warning: this message contains a plethora of reminiscences and digressions
In March 2010 SIMON O'NEILL returned home to Aotearoa New Zealand to sing in a Wagner concert (related to his recently released recording, entitled Father and Son, because he sings Parsifal and Lohengrin, and Siegmund and Siegfried); in an interview with Christine Argyle, he said he loves Lohengrin; he has sung the role in London and deep in the heart of Texas (well, not Dallas, or Austin, or Fort Worth, but Houston, which is not as close to the sea as Galveston).
Simon's bounding unbounded enthusiasm has prompted me to write this article on Lohengrin, and to introduce it to our local video-opera group in Palmerston North. Notice that there has always been a link to his website on this one (see the side-bar on the right), and he has a page devoted to him here:
I have never seen Lohengrin on the stage, I have to admit: I have never been in the right place at the right time (that's not the story of my life, let me hasten to add, since this is my preferred home town, having tried Sydney, Adelaide, Launceston, Melbourne, and Canberra, and still carrying an Australian passport, which I rarely use).
However, I bought a copy of Lohengrin on video discs (1990), for $80 from the Parsons shop in Wellington (not the little town of Wellington in New South Wales where my father was born). If we can not have Simon (he used to sing Lohengrin's narration to us on his website) we can enjoy one of his admirers (see The Understudy, Part 7) namely PLÁCIDO DOMINGO, with Cheryl Studer, and Robert Lloyd (I first saw him in Parsifal, the film, as Gurnemanz, and afterwards our local Welsh tenor Ted Driscoll was raving about him outside our famous Regent theatre, and assuming he was Welsh, but he is English). The conductor of the Vienna orchestra is Claudio Abbado (an Italian Mensch, a great human). The video overseer, as usual, is Brian Large.
I also have Plácido on the Georg Solti recording, with Jessye Norman, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the herald (I remember a critic reviewing another performance and saying he enjoyed the herald more than the other singers; was it the Karajan version?).
The (monophonic) recording I am hearing now (in my adjacent garage-auditorium) is from the 1953 Bayreuth Festival; the Australian Broadcasting Commission used to take us there every year, so I would have heard this, and my school friends Grattan and Geldard agreed that Wolfgang Windgassen was superior to the other tenors that were inflicted on us (Ramon Vinay was one that unnerved me, but he had success nonetheless). The conductor Joseph Keilberth was no Hans Knappertsbusch, we thought, and yet his Goetterdaemmerung from that time with a similar cast of singers has received acclaim in its compact audio disc revival.
The other version I have in a 12-inch box is Rudolf Kempe's fine interpretation, with Jess Thomas, Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich again, Gottlob Frick, Otto Wiener (herald).
So then, what is this thing called Lohengrin (Lo, hen, grin! but the bird is a swan; and he was Garin of Loheren, or Lorraine, or Lotheringen)? A study of love? Yes, as always with Wagner, a man seeking love-redemption through a woman (here Elsa, and elsewhere Holländer and Senta, Tannhäuser and Elisabeth, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde, and ... Parsifal alias Parzival, who must have found a wife to beget Lohengrin, and indeed her name was Kondwiramuir, someone with whom he could conduire amour). The woman usually dies (drowning, immolation, or merely falling down in a lifeless swoon), and so does the man, but the swan-knight swans off back to glory-land, and the castle called Montsalvat, Salvation Mountain, where the Holy Grail supplies all his needs (all?).
Wagner called Lohengrin a romantic opera; this time he did not use his term music-drama. We can categorize it ('multiplicitly') as a mystical mythical historical nationalist miracle fairy-tale religious musical drama, since it has all those elements. Wagner told inquirers to think of the Greek myth of Zeus and Semele; she asked to see all his divine splendour, and it overwhelmed her. The mystical facet is the descent of the Holy Grail, brought to earth by angels. The miracle is the turning of the swan back into the prince who had been put under a spell by the wicked witch Ortrud, and the religious part is the battle between her gods Wotan and Freya and the Christian Triune Deity. The swan provides the fairy-tale aspect, and remember the perfect fool Parsifal shot a swan dead. The historical element is the presence of King Heinrich the First (Henry the Fowler) who united the Germans nationalistically against the "Huns", actually the Hungarians; in the original German epic Lohengrin fought in the wars, married Elsa and had children, and after several years she asked him the fatal question (not on their wedding night, as Wagner has it, trying to fit the story strictly into the 24 hours allotted in classical theatre). Wagner wants the music to speak, with motifs representing the Grail, the Swan, and so on; and as in Greek drama he has a chorus, which has plenty to say about the action (and yet he dispensed with it almost entirely in the Ring, letting the orchestra takes its place and perform its role). An astonishing feature of the music is that it can be dramatic while constantly counting four beats in each bar.
Ten minutes in length, shorter than the overtures for Rienzi, Holländer, and Tannhäuser (each of which seek to encompass the whole story), but similar to the Tristan prelude, setting the mood and atmosphere. Wagner describes it as portraying a spiritual vision of the Holy Grail being brought from above by a host of angels; the sacred object emits exquisite fragrances which ravish the senses of the beholder; at the climax it is revealed in its glorious reality, and its rays of light consecrate the kneeling person to its service; then the angels joyously return to the ethereal heights. (As I wrote this I was listening to Placido singing the Narration in Act 3, which is set to this same music.) It begins quietly with 2 flutes and 2 oboes sounding the significant A major chord with violins, which then introduce us to the theme of the Grail; the climax comes with blazing golden brass; the shimmering strings return for the ascent.
ACT 1 (65 m) The setting is Antwerp (now in Belgium) in 933.
The male choir has two divisions: the Saxons (with Thuringians) and the local Brabantians.
A herald summons the people to appear before King Heinrich (Henry the Fowler). The sovereign exhorts them to unite against the Hungarian barbarians and defend “das Deutsche Reich”(the Teutonic realm, alias the Holy Roman Empire). However, he is concerned to find discord and feuding in Brabant, with no leader to keep order. He asks Friedrich (Frederick) von Telramund (who will turn out to be the villain) to explain the situation. He replies: The truth I tell, untruth is foreign to me. When the Duke of Brabant died, he entrusted his children to my protection: the maiden Elsa and the boy Gottfried (Godfrey).
The alleged fact of the matter is that Elsa took Gottfried into the woods and returned without him; she feigned anguish over his disappearance, but he was not found. Telramund had the right to marry his ward, but he had taken a wife more to his liking, namely Ortrud of Friesland, from a family that once gave this land its princes. Telramund accuses Elsa of fratricide, and requests the king to judge justly. He adds that she must have a secret lover whom she intends to make ruler of Brabant, instead of Friedrich himself, the rightful heir.
Elsa is brought in for trial. At first she does not speak, merely expressing her yes and no in her countenance, but she begins her case in an aria (though Wagner does not give himslf ‘airs’): Einsam in trüben Tagen hab’ ich zu Gott gefleht, Alone in troubled days I supplicated God. She heard a piteous cry echoing far away, and she sank into a sweet sleep; she saw a knight in shining armour approaching with his sword, sent from heaven, coming to defend her. Friedrich affirms that he will take on her champion in mortal combat. For her part, Elsa declares that her defender will receive her crown, her property, and herself as his bride.
Trumpeters blow a call into the four directions, twice, and finally, wondrous to behold, a swan is sighted on the river Scheldt, drawing a boat containing a knight. (We pretend for the next three hours that we do not know his name, and he is not going to reveal it till it is dragged out of him in the grand finale.) He thanks the big bird (it fills the stage in this production) for its services, and without waiting for a tip or a kiss, it heads back along the stream. (When Ortrud sees the swan she gets a terrible fright, we are told in the stage directions, and we will learn why when the knots are untied and the spells are uncast at the end.)
The knight and the maiden work on their pre-nuptial agreement, the main stipulation being that she will never ask him his name or his origin; and she agrees that this question will never come from her. (What never? Well ...) Nevertheless, he drums it into her again, and she swears to obey his command.
It is love at first sight: Elsa, ich liebe dich. (But he forgot to tell her she is beautiful.)
With all due ceremony and chivalry the sword fight is prepared and performed; in no time the accuser is on the ground with the victor’s sword at his throat.
The crowd cries: Sieg! Heil! (Where have we heard that before?)
LOHENGRIN (Act 2.1)
In a gloomy prelude the nature of the sinister scheming Ortrud is conveyed to us by a violoncello melody. It should be noted that Wagner composed the music of the second act last, and he is on the way to being the magician who can conjure up his characters through themes in the orchestra, as he does in The Ring.
The disgraced and dejected Friedrich von Telramund and his wife Ortrud are seated on the steps of the minster. He bewails his shame (Schmach) and his lost honour (Ehre), and (rightly) blames her for their downfall. She was the one who told him that Elsa had drowned her brother, and had persuaded him to abandon the innocent Elsa and marry her. From time to time sounds of festivity issue from the knights’ quarters. Ortrud insists that they are not finished. The foreign knight’s magic can be overcome if his name is revealed or part of his body cut off, and Friedrich agrees to cooperate with her in seeking revenge (Rache).
Elsa can be their instrument to achieve this, and when Elsa appears on a balcony, Ortrud pleads with her to show pity. While Elsa is descending to offer comfort, Ortrud invokes the Nordic gods Wodan and Freia (who will appear in his next opera, The Rhinegold) to assist her in her revenge against the apostates (Christians!). Ortrud falls at Elsa’s feet, and receives an assurance that she will be permitted to attend the wedding, and that Friedrich will be pardoned. But Ortrud warns Elsa that this stranger could disappear again, by magic. Elsa takes her inside to teach her a lesson in true love between a man and a woman.
LOHENGRIN Part 3 (Act 2.2) [54m]
In the previous scene the wicked witch Ortrud had feigned remorse and had been allowed indoors by Elsa, while her hapless husband Friedrich was left outside, swearing to fell Lohengrin, who has robbed him of his honour.
Dawn comes up with a fanfare of trumpets (a quartet of them). Brabantian nobles and soldiers arrive. The King’s herald announces the day’s news: Friedrich Telramund is outlawed, and should not be approached (A curse on him, they all cry); the God-sent hero is to marry Elsa and receive the crown of Brabant, with the title Protector of Brabant (Heil!); Elsa will marry her redeemer today, and on the morrow they (Saxons and Brabantians) will all go to fight the Hungarians (whot no honeymoon?).
Friedrich stealthily approaches four of his liegeman and declares that he is going to publicly accuse the stranger of sorcery.
Pageboys appear: Make way! A procession of ladies dressed for a wedding is moving towards the minster, and Elsa emerges in her wedding gown. Ortrud (presumably wearing one of Elsa’s sumptuous dresses) suddenly bars the way: Back Elsa, no longer will I follow you like a maid; you shall give me precedence. Elsa is astonished at this sudden change. Ortrud says her husband’s name was held in honour throughout the land, but this newcomer is a nameless nobody. Elsa defends the virtue and honesty of her hero, and the crowd concurs; but Ortrud will not cease her tirade, as she attempts to sow seeds of suspicion.
The King and Lohengrin come out and see what is happening. (Here Wagner prescribes that Elsa will bury her head in her redeemer’s breast and shall weep.) Friedrich now makes his move, accusing the stranger of sorcery, and demanding that he reveal his name and origin. Lohengrin avers that he answers only to Elsa in this matter. The King agrees.
Telramund quietly tells Elsa he will be ready in the night to assist her by cutting off a finger-tip to break the spell and reveal the interloper’s trickery. Lohengrin rescues her, and embraces her; but Ortrud is signalling that she will have her revenge. Amid All Hail they enter the church for the marriage ceremony.
WAGNER: LOHENGRIN Part 4 (Act 3.1-2) (Domingo, Studer, Abbado)
The wedding celebrations are depicted in the orchestral prelude, rather riotous (like The Rite of Spring); you will know this piece, if you listen to the right radio stations. (I once had the thrill of playing my trumpet in a local concert performance of it.)
Then comes the even more familiar bridal chorus, in a procession to the bridal chamber (so it is quite out of place in modern churches, as Here comes the bride, straight down the aisle, to be matrimonially parsonified, in a very short while).
The King embraces and blesses the happy pair, and the ladies and gentleman file out (men to the right, women to the left, Wagner stipulates; we shall see if he is obeyed).
Alone at last! For the first time since they met (only a matter of hours ago?) they are together with no one else present. (Actually, Friedrich and his four henchmen are lurking at the back door.) “Elsa, my wife, you sweet pure bride, tell me now if you feel happy inside”. They each confess that their heart is ignited with delight. They are so glad that love has conquered all her troubles and brought them together. Then she intimates (but this will ruin intimacy) that she would like to know his name. He gently reprimands her:“Elsa!”. “How sweetly my name slips from your lips”, she continues. And here she is, already asking him to tell her his name, but she will keep it secret. He tries to distract her with romantic love, referring to the scent of the flowers in the garden, but ultimately he only drives her to distraction, and she becomes more and more insistent that he must reveal who he is. In delirium, she thinks she can see the swan coming to take him away from her. “Tell me your name. Where have you come from?” Interruption is imminent.
At this juncture the conspirators storm into the chamber. Elsa grabs the sword from the bed, and holds the scabbard so that her husband can draw it. Friedrich is struck down dead, and the four nobles kneel; Elsa faints. Lohengrin lifts her and lays her on the couch. (Nobody has lost their virginity, so they can save it for another occasion.) Lohengrin commands the nobles to take the dead man to the King for judgement.
He calls for four attendants to dress his sweet wife Elsa. The night of love is over.
WAGNER: LOHENGRIN (Act 3 recapitulation and final scenes))
So, we are roused by the rowdy prelude (da da da daa dam di daa daa, dam di daaa daa) (3m), entranced by the entrance into the marital chamber, to the strains of the bridal chorus (dam dam di daa, Here comes the bride) (5m), and the blissful couple are alone at last. It is true; they have never been without a crowd around them, so the swan knight’s proposal was a proposition, a foregone conclusion, not made in private on bended knee; their pre-nuptial agreement was drawn up in public when he first arrived; she offered him her all if he would be her champion; he vowed to win and wed her, but she must never ask his name or his origin, that was his solemn stipulation.
It’s now the time for getting to know you. What will they talk about? Here a principle of love and mechanics should apply: the closer the couple the less talk/torque. But Ortrud and Frederick of Telramund have sowed seeds of distrust and suspicion in Elsa’s heart. Her husband should be able to reveal his secret to her in private; he is using her name freely (Elsa my wife), why may she not whisper his name in his ear? (He could have said simply, ‘Just call me George’, and they could have got on with the happy coupling.)
As I said last time: he tries to distract her with romantic love, referring to the scent of the flowers in the garden, but ultimately he only drives her to distraction, and she becomes more and more insistent that he must reveal who he is. In delirium, she thinks she can see the swan coming to take him away from her. “Tell me your name. Where have you come from?” Interruption is imminent.
At this juncture the conspirators storm into the chamber. Elsa grabs the sword from the bed, and holds the scabbard so that her husband can draw it (we saw this not happen). Friedrich is struck down dead, and the four nobles kneel; Elsa faints. Lohengrin lifts her and lays her on the couch. (Nobody has lost their virginity, so they can save it for another occasion.) Lohengrin commands the nobles to take the dead man to the King for judgement. He calls for four attendants to dress Elsa. The night of love is over.
The sun comes up ( it doesn’t really; it comes out sideways as the planet Earth turns; in fact the sun does not move at all; it’s an illusion). The trumpets blare again, and all the troops assemble on the meadow by the river again, ready for battle against the Huns. “Heil, King Heinrich. For German (Deutsch) land the German sword, so shall the force of the empire (Reich) be proven.’ The King calls for the man sent by God. Telramund’s body is brought in; then Elsa and her large retinue; finally the knight himself, who expresses his regrets for not being able to lead the army; something has come up. He has a complaint: the two people who preceded him into the royal presence have betrayed him. His wife has asked the forbidden question. So here is his story. He comes from the castle of Monsalvat in a distant land; in a magnificent temple there the Holy Grail is kept, having been brought down by an angelic host; and every year a dove descends upon it to reinforce its wondrous power; a knight is chosen by it to go forth and be a defender of rectitude and virtue; but if he is recognized, he must withdraw. “I was sent to you by the Grail; my father Parzival (alias Parsifal) wears his/its crown; I his/its knight am named Lohengrin.” (That’s the cue for the trumpets.)
Elsa is swooning, singing as she faints; but Lohengrin catches her, and asks why it had to come to this. The men still want him to lead them, but the Grail is angry, so he predicts victory for them, and nevermore shall hordes from the east overrun Germany.
The swan appears (one time it kept going, off into the wings of the stage, leaving the tenor to inquire ‘What time does the next swan leave?). Ortrud triumphantly confesses that she had turned Elsa’s lost brother into the bird; Lohengrin releases him from the spell; Ortrud collapses. Lohengrin steps into the boat and the (aforementioned?) dove takes up the chain; he departs; Elsa has been welcoming her sibling back, and then sees that her spouse has left her; she slowly sinks to the ground, lifeless. ‘Weh (Woe)!’. The ‘prequel’, Parsifal, comes many years later.