Grande opera romantica in tre atti. 3 hours 25 minutes.
I know I promised never to do an opera by you know who, especially if Sir Denis Forman reviewed it, and he reviewed all of them. Although it is true that Sir Denis reviewed this opera in his second guide, it did not make it into his earlier much better known guide. I also know that some of you want me to post this because you will probably never have a chance to read Forman’s review so if I’m doing it, I’m doing it my way, and also this being probably my only ever review for an opera by you know who, it is probably one of my longest posts (it is over 4000 words long!). Depending on the comments posted, I may take this specific post down at some point. The version presented here is not in German, but an Italian translation, a tradition dating back to the first performance of the opera in Bologna, Italy, 1 November, 1871, which is my preferred way to listen to this opera. Incidentally on the 9th of November, 1871, Verdi made a secret journey and attended a performance, taking notes on the score, some good, some bad, as it was his first exposure to you know who’s music. In order to make up for this faux pas of mine I will present the opera as I prefer to see it, as the first through-composed Italian opera with very late bel canto aspirations as performed in Milan in 1959 conducted by Ferdinand Leitner with Sandor Konya in the title role, Marcella Probbe as Elsa di Brabante, Aldo Protti as Federico di Telramondo, and Laura Didier as Ortruda. This review will be based on that of Sir Denis Forman for Lohengrin although I will diverge from him at times (and timer points), in particular I have more referenced items, although I will tend to give them single star ratings as Forman gave nothing in this opera the coveted three stars (I’ve tried under every circumstance to retain Forman star rankings so that I am only adding to their number rather than modifying anything he wrote. The libretto is an Italian translation by Salvatore de C. Marchesi, and apparently this was a tradition in Italy to perform the opera in Italian up until the mid-1970s (I suppose because it brings out the vocal lines better than the original German). The rights were owned by Ricordi publishing house.
The piano-vocal score is available at: imslp.Petrucci..org/wiki/Lohengrin,_WWV_75_(Wagner,_Richard)
PLOT: Antwerp, present day Belgium, late 10th century. Elsa (soprano), sister of the child duke of Brabant, has been accused of murdering her brother in the forest by their guardians Federico di Telramondo (baritone) and his wife Ortruda (mezzo-soprano). The case is being tried by Enrico, the German king (bass), when suddenly appears a knight on a boat driven by a swan.
LINK TO OPERA (A thank you to Allan Rizzetti):
Sir Denis Forman annotates a number of leitmotifs: The Grail, Evil Ortrud(a), and The Forbidden Question, but there are at least three more, Elsa’s Dream and Lohengrin are two, also possibly one for Elsa’s little brother Gottfried (Godfredo) or maybe it’s the Swan? does it matter, they are one and the same ultimately. These are not in any way like the bombarding leitmotifs of Der Ring, Parsifal, Tristan, but rather closer to the motifs used by Francesco Cilea in Adriana Lecouvreur. They exist, they help the listener/audience, but they do not overpower the music nor is most of the score made up of them. Much of the music is actually unique to a specific part of the score and does not recur, although a couple (such as the theme to the scene change intermezzo in act three) would have been nice to hear from again, or they effect a mood, like the militant music.
Oh, and before I forget, I have decided to try out a new feature here and include lyric starts as well as timer points for this review, so now the first line is included after the timer point. I don’t know if I will continue doing this but here I did it. Enjoy!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: By the banks of the river Schelda. (62 minutes)
0: The prelude is based on two themes, the first is Holy Grail and is the first true leitmotif in the modern sense. The second, towards which it slowly builds to a climax while maintaining extremely close harmonies in the upper strings, is holy something although I’m not sure what at the moment. It has been termed “the first example of hypnotism by music”, and was the last music in the opera to be composed. Although it attained no star value from Sir Denis, I’ll give it a star *, just one.
22: Sola ne’ miei primi anni Suddenly, we are bombarded by curtain rise/sunrise music and trumpet voluntary. The King’s Harald (the only other solo character) announces the arrival of the King to the lords and ladies of Brabante. Enrico goes into a long and brooding recitative about the threat from the Magyars and how he needs men to defeat them (this is apparently the only thing our composer could come up with as introductory filler, although it does play for a brief mention in act 2). Federico gives is testimony (perjury though it be) in a superior sort of recitative that borders on arioso (possibly the first time it was attempted in musical history). There is a single moment that I personally like but I won’t award a star because it is far too fleeting. Federico introduces his wife Ortrude to Enrico, but seeing that she is the daughter of the pagan King of Frisia the interview does not go well and she is cooly received at best. Eventually Elsa is called in, there is silence, and then something different for a change, a sad and yet calming clarinet (or is it oboe?) tune and then the strings and flutes pop in with more of this calming melody, which tunes almost into a lite march. Enrico is barely able to get Elsa to speak the second time he addresses her: “Fratello mio” is all she says in response before going into the opera’s first set piece: Elsa’s Dream ** in which she describes, prophetically it would seem, her dream about a knight in shining armour coming to her rescue as her saviour. As she describes him the Grail theme comes on (it’s first appearance since the prelude) and then the Lohengrin motif appears following close behind it. If not for the fact that it connects directly into the next sequence, this would be a stand alone set piece aria in a traditional opera. Enrico orders that Elsa’s innocence be tried through single combat between Federico and Elsa’s champion. This is accepted (although watch for this Wotan-ish sort of military brass that pops up).
30: Quel cavalier ognora il mio campion sara We get more Elsa’s Dream theme as she confidently awaits her champion *. The Herald announces for him to come, no response, silence. Federico tells everyone it is all a rouse perpetrated by Elsa to trick everyone. She starts to worry, innocently and nicely though, since we already know the true, one can not help but feel a little sorry for the poor thing. The Herald makes the announcement again. Again silence, this time the chorus and the orchestra gets a wee bit ornery, but just a wee bit. Elsa prays, accompanied by her ladies and her Dream theme.
35: Ciel! Ciel! Il Cigno! But wait– what is this coming towards us? All madness breaks out with the chorus and orchestra blazing out joyously as Loengrino arrives in the swan boat, this is the Arrival of the Swan **!
37: Merce, merce, cigno gentile! Loengrino thanks the swan a cappella, with almost zero accompaniment (very high strings, at intervals, mostly the voice is exposed). Sir Denis thought this made our hero seem rather “prissy” (his words), I personally like the a cappella effect *. The chorus very nobly comments on this stranger. He gets a little more cocky as he addresses Enrico.
41: Di vergin casta Then he goes into a semi-divine patch * as he goes over his consent form instructions with Elsa in a tender duet (high strings). With terms accepted once, (marriage is a must) we go into more terms this time alternating between Elsa’s Dream and the Grail theme.
43: Elsa, io t’amo! Suddenly we get hit by another motif Evil Ortruda which includes a rather dashing high tenor bit from Loengrino The Forbidden Question *. Although the first is menacing, Loengrino ends both times very gently (never ask my name or where I’m from), with FQ which is a unique trait of this opera. He declares he loves her on a mild climax which is very pretty and the lyric heading but not related to the FQ. The chorus gets in on the act. Loengrino preps for the fight with Federico, along with the King and the chorus to a rehash of the military music from the beginning of the act. Enrico orders vows of fair play from the competitors, this is given.
53: Tu ben farai nostro signor Enrico leads all in a pray to the Almighty before the fight, this leads directly into a quintet (at first a cappella and the first singing for Ortruda in the entire opera) *. The fight itself is a bit of a disappointment (Sir Denis thought this and so do I admittedly). He describes it as “something like the hurry music for a D.W. Griffiths silent film”.
58: Lo volle This does however lead directly into the act finale, a nearly four minute amusing tune that starts off in Elsa’s vocal line and moves into a static march of rejoicing that ends the act. I suppose a star but Sir Denis didn’t give it anything, although he did call it “noisy” *.
ACT 2: Outside Antwerp Castle, night, then day. (82 minutes)
5: O tu donna infernal The dark and brooding prelude opens to a very similar theme to that of the second act of Tristan und Isolde although it is in a totally different key and morose so the similarity will not be apparent. Traces of FQ flutter about at times. All three acts begin with set piece preludes, this is probably the least interesting musically but probably dramatically the most mood setting, or at least the most moody. Distant fanfare, mildly Valkyrie-ish, even Elsa’s Dream pops in briefly towards the end, no star. Federico breaks up the orchestral proceedings with a thud. He and Ortruda mope about for a while about the whole getting exiled at dawn thing although Federico does get one brooding arioso * that is worth looking out for as he verbally attacks his wife with his loss of honour. More distant fanfare.
11: Persin la mia ragion Notice this orchestral feature, it is the first draft of the sleep motif from Die Walkure **. It gets softly repeated. The two biker some more to much better music (Evil Ortruda theme). This duet, in which Ortruda goes over her plans with her husband for seven minutes, were considered to be some of the best in the entire opera by Forman.
19: Aurette a cui Elsa comes on to a gentle crystal clear tune * which must have a relation to a dance tune in the score of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Why is she up so late on the night before her wedding. Federico recognizes Elsa’s voice and he hides so Ortruda can engage their victim in a duet.
23, 33, 37: Ortruda ove sei tu? The Elsa-Ortruda duet ** starts off very ornery and unpromising with all the interest in the orchestra as the younger woman tries to find Ortruda in the dark from her balcony. She decides to go down and meet her, which gives Ortruda the opportunity to call upon her pagan deities Wotan and Fricka in a furious solo *. It also marks the third appearance of a weird high strings scream (it first appeared in the long opening recite in act 1 when Federico spoke, the second time was before the fight). Elsa finally sings with the confidence of a grown woman here as she takes pity of Ortruda and her “plight”. Ortruda ruins this by putting suspicion into Elsa’s mind (will the unknown knight abandon her after the wedding night? Is he really a badie sent to protect her from her murderous deed?) Forbidden Question and Evil Ortruda abound as Elsa goes back to acting like a little girl again and protests her confidence in her knight. Something resembling a theme towards the end of the overture to Die Feen crops up as the best (and last) part of the duet begins (this is where the two stars really come into their own, although most of it is in the orchestra). Federico comes on in one final burst of anger, this time against his wife. No star, but the timer indicates where it is located.
39: A festa convitati siam The interlude and choral entr’acte * only of interest it is in some ways a proto-type for the prelude to Das Rheingold. The sun rises and everybody in town “Princess Aurora”‘s out to the castle for the wedding. The choristers are fine, some sound ironically Italian, the Harald announces some stuff about Loengrino leading troops against the Magyars for the King after the wedding festivities, but none of it is particularly remarkable even with four disloyal nobles, Federico’s surprise appearance, and mild rehashes of the chorus that ended the previous act and an arioso for Enrico.
50, 59: Felice sia l’eletta Four pages (all female voices) announce the arrival of the bride and off we are into Elsa’s Wedding March * (this is Sir Denis Forman’s rating, not mine). At first a mild and gentle piece on par with themes from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it gradually builds (patches of Elsa’s Dream and more of the Metropolis dance routine set to a lovely, quiet choral refrain) to a near frenzied religious pitch. The trumpet crescendo will return later in the act. Ortruda ruins it all by attacking Elsa in her attempt to abort the wedding. The duet that follows is menacing in a mild way and the chorus really doesn’t want to hear Ortruda out at all. Elsa gets a mildly stunning but quiet accompaniment as she charges back at Ortruda and finishes well with a bel canto climax.
63: Salve salve Enrico The King and Loengrino arrive just in time. The latter attacks Ortruda and asks Elsa if the older woman has poisoned her mind against him *. She doesn’t have enough time (apparently even though we get an intermezzo from the orchestra) to respond before Federico has his turn at trying to crash the wedding. He is ultimately no more successful than that wife of his, but does get more of a following from the chorus than her (sexist opera chorus!).
70, 80: A te che fama Loengrino responds rather well, asking Elsa to answer him leading to a quiet but whirling “thinks” ensemble from the principles and chorus *. She eventually gives the right answer (even if she does have doubts) and so the organ plays and the wedding goes on as scheduled to the joy of all (except Ortruda and Federico of course) and with one last return for Evil Ortruda (as Elsa looks back in her bridal procession at Ortruda, giving the wicked woman hope that disaster will come), the act ends amid the repeat of the trumpet theme from earlier in the scene.
ACT 3 (61.5 minutes)
0: The prelude is obviously ** (what else could it be?). Being Italian, the brass is probably about half the number of a German orchestra and this somewhat sedate version is rather waltz-like as we go through the wedding festivities. It is also shorter somehow.
Scene 1: The Bridal Chamber (duh!)
3: Lieti e fede noi ti guidiamo The globally famous Bridal Chorus **, although the composer would actually find this fact annoying (as does the Roman Catholic Church, which forbids it as part of their wedding ceremonies because of its association with an illegal wedding).
8, 21, 27: Cessaro i canti alfin The Love Scene (of sorts) Elsa-Loengrino **, the longest (20 minutes) and last of the opera’s two star items (according to Sir Denis Forman that is) at first very romantic and bel canto. Surprisingly, there is actually very minimal accompaniment from the orchestra, the voices dominate here and it is very effective until Evil Ortruda pops in underneath everything and Elsa starts to freak. Her groom tries to distract her with the flowers by the window and more distractions which start to verge on a full blown aria which gets threatened towards the end by more Evil Ortruda. (No sexy time? or is that too obvious and also too naughty for mid-19th century opera, bad Phil!). Anyways Elsa freaks out and asks the FQ, and it’s all over. The ambush by Federico and his sudden death by Loengrino comes off as an afterthought in many ways. His dreams dashed, the knight leaves, promising only that he will answer Elsa at dawn to the FQ motif. The orchestra is forlorn as Elsa realizes that she has destroyed herself by asking the fatal question, traces of Valentine’s dying words in Les Huguenots can be spotted here if you listen really hard. The scene ends with Evil Ortruda.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1.
33: The intermezzo includes one good tune which Forman termed “Land of Hope and Glory” which is rather cheeky of him but it is worth mentioning *. Not a leitmotif (although it does come back early in the scene while Enrico is making addresses), just a really grand knightly tune that could have been at home in the score of an old movie about Queen Elizabeth I. It makes you happy you’ve sat for three hours waiting for it. After Enrico and the chorus set the stage, Elsa is brought in like she is a silent Eve after eating the forbidden fruit (Evil Ortruda, Elsa’s Dream, FQ motifs abound). Then Loengrino comes on and the chorus is all excited but he informs them as to what has transpired. Everyone (King Enrico, chorus, very forlorn).
46: Da voi lontan The Grail Aria * (Forman gives it nothing if you can believe it), Lohengrin’s tell all in which he goes full-Parsifal (original king don’t you know?) on us. Elsa briefly responds before the Swan (ah the Swan!) returns. From the way people freak at this thing you would think the Swan was evil and not just a weird stage prop.
53: Cigno fedel Loengrino’s address to the Swan *, to basically the same music as the Grail Aria but modified, is in many ways the better of the two arias he has in this scene. He sorrowfully says goodbye to Elsa, telling her that had she been faithful to him she would have gotten her brother back, alive.
57: Sta ben ten va! The Finale * starts with Ortruda coming on in a bizarre panic of evil triumph, but our hero will not have it and he prays that Elsa’s brother be returned to her (Ortruda having confessed that she enchanted the boy into Loengrino’s beloved pet cigno). Elsa cries after her husband, faints, dies possibly (?). The orchestra guides us to the final curtain.
Lohengrin is probably the only Wagner opera that is actually about the consequences of messing with God. Sure Rienzi prays to God and gets killed by his own people, and Tannhauser goes to great lengths to repent of his ways so he can be with Him (or is it Elizabeth?), and the townspeople of Nurnberg sing hymns to God and the Knights of the Grail seem to belong to some sort of pantheistic death cult (there, I’ve said it), but Lohengrin is the only time we see anyone actually get punished for playing around with divine fire, or rather, two-timing the imperious Holy Grail, whose vengeance rains down in “fire and fury”. This is exactly what Lohengrin tries to do by marrying Elsa, he tries to place a human being, even one he has loved from afar for so long and who he saves from undeserved misery (the false murder charge), ahead of God and his actions prove lethal. This is actually the only part of the narrative of this opera that I actually like because I find the story overall rather silly, especially the whole swan thing and how did a boy turned into a swan by evil Ortrud end up in the service of his brother-in-law exactly, she wasn’t too clever on that one was she? After the FQ is asked it is possible to feel very sorry for the young lovers (the fairy-tale mood is shattered), but the bad guys (Ortrud and hubby Friederich) are far more interesting.
When I first read Sir Denis Forman’s review of this opera I was a little shocked, the prelude gets no star? Just eight two star items? No three star items? Lots of one star items and no star at all for In fernem land/Da voi lontan? Then I sort of realized, yes the opera is vocally very, very beautiful (the very best that Wagner would ever write actually, nothing he wrote afterwards even pales in comparison to how wonderfully tailored to the human voice this is), and it does have a few good and even great orchestral pieces/bits, but some of the score is a little pale. The Grail Music in general is a little pretentious (an accusation made by Forman about Parsifal as well) although it isn’t really as terrible as in the latter opera. Most of the music is very gentle, delicate, sensitive, while not being obviously romantic, and so a little bit pale at times, but these are off-set by militant music, and even quieter passages, that are also sometimes a smidgen ornery. Lohengrin is also the end of an era for German opera in that it literally was the last German work that can be called an opera.
A BIT OF HISTORY (Can be skipped to next paragraph):
Prior to Wagner, or at least Schubert, all German “operas” were really Singspiels (a German illegitimate foundling child of opera with spoken dialogue most successfully given a somewhat undeserved foster home by the likes of Mozart, Weber, and in one instance Beethoven, although in the last case it took several homes to find the right one). After Wagner, or rather after Lohengrin, German opera was never the same again. It had become “musical drama”, a hybrid of the through-composed symphony and Monteverdi in which musical numbers (arias, duets, trios, choruses) technically did not exist anymore.
AND WE ARE BACK:
In Lohengrin we find the last famous vestige of the standard aria in German opera (Elsa’s Dream, the series of arioso for Ortrud, Friederich, Heinrich, and of course Lohengrin’s series of arias in acts one and three). These are still able to be separated from the main body without consequence or fatal damage to their overall structure, but this is also the last time such a thing was readily possibly in Wagner. Why is this? The easiest answer is that Wagner stopped writing traditional “numbers operas” because he really didn’t know how to. His earliest operas (Die Feen, Das Liebersverbot, Rienzi) are disasters of various levels of magnitude, and all follow a traditional sequencing of numbers. Even Die fliegende Hollander and Tannhauser follow this patterning, but already, particularly in the last opera, Wagner was connecting numbers together with odd orchestral features (a bar of low strings connects the act 2 Tannhauser-Elizabeth duet to the rest of the act even though it has a very traditional sounding orchestral finish). In Lohengrin we actually find a compromise, a middle-ground between traditional opera and whatever it was Wagner was fantasizing about. It is through-composed, but it also has logically occurring set piece numbers. The chorus actually matters (never would this happen again in Wagner except Meistersinger) and is the closest to a Greek chorus that it will ever be (before it was like an Italian or French opera chorus, providing the work with spectacle, later it barely exists). Here the chorus is essentially another soloist character (albeit one uniquely capable of polyphonic singing). And that is another feature of this opera, its polyphony both vocally and orchestrally (the Act 1 Prelude), so original, fresh, and unique. This can be paired with its extremely diatonic music (Wagner makes little to no attempt at chromaticism here, the last time this happens as well). Overall it is a strong, worthy, solid B, maybe B+, although in performance it will probably come off more spectacularly than any other Wagner opera given allowances are made for that Swan!