By Richard Wagner
Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director Elijah Moshinsky
At the Lyric Opera of Chicago
“Wagner is one who has suffered deeply—that is his distinction above other musicians. I admire Wagner wherever he puts himself into music.”
“I do not like whatever music has no ambition beyond persuasion of the nerves.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The opening notes of Wagner’s Lohengrin wash over one as beguiling Boreas. “The Lohengrin Prelude,” quipped Nietzsche, “furnished the first example, only too insidious, only too successful, of hypnotism by means of music”—and he’s quite right. The audience feels, it is music that elevates the emotions. This is, of course, Wagner’s specialty, and it is on show throughout, though perhaps not as bombastically as in the operas that were to follow. When the first major chord is struck, one becomes so overfull that laughing is almost obligatory, the absurd joy of it nearly too much to handle. And then Wagner is off to a moralizing gallop, which he sustains for the remainder of the play.
The story is in many ways a typical Knight of the Swan tale from the Middle Ages: a mysterious stranger (Lohengrin, in this production excellently portrayed by the South African tenor Johan Botha) appears, on a boat pulled by a swan, to save a troubled damsel (Elsa, the soprano Emily Magee); he then leaves, once a promise is broken, often that of not requesting the name and lineage of the hero. But because of Wagner’s obsession with purity, unlike the medieval tradition in which the knight begets an heir before he departs, Lohengrin and Elsa never consummate their love.
The opera is set in the German 10th century, in which King Heinrich of the Holy Roman Empire (impeccably performed by the German bass Georg Zeppenfeld) is gathering troops to crush the oncoming Hungarian onslaught. He has been traveling throughout the empire, but, as the action of the opera begins, he arrives at the dukedom of Brabant. Here, political turmoil simmers: Friedrich, Count of Telramund (Greer Grimsley, bass-baritone, in a well-executed role) accuses Elsa of Brabant, the late Duke’s daughter, of killing her brother and taking a secret lover, in order to seat herself on the duchy’s throne. This he has been told by a “witness,” his wife Ortrud (savagely done by Michaela Schuster, a Bavarian mezzo-soprano whom Friedrich II would have praised), the woman he opted to marry instead of his betrothed Elsa, because of this scandal. Since Friedrich is the Duke’s brother, he becomes the heir apparent and claims the throne. He is Wagner’s personification of Honor: he does what he does out of honor, for the sake of honor, in pursuit of honor. But Woman has led him astray. Woman is, for Wagner, the causa prima: all action in the play can be traced back to Elsa or Ortrud; and the play, it should be noted, is tragic. These women, like Eve, are the reason Men fail. Elsa symbolizes purity, but because she is a woman, she cannot be perfect: she falters, and brings down not only herself, but Lohengrin as well, who must depart because of her doubts. . . . Which brings us to what Lohengrin is, at its heart: namely, Wagner’s crusade against doubt. Because Elsa wishes to know her lover’s—her husband’s—name, she is killed; she has doubts, she has trouble believing—being sure without any proof whatsoever (in short: faith)—that her savior knight is indeed holy. He may come, as Ortrud contends, from unholy sorcery. Once more, Nietzsche (one of the best students of Wagner who ever lived): “Lohengrin contains a solemn excommunication of inquiry and questioning. Wagner thus represents the Christian concept, ‘you ought to and must believe.’ It is a crime against what is highest and holiest to be scientific.”
Simultaneous with being an overtly Christian morality tale, Wagner’s Lohengrin draws heavily from the Greeks: particularly the story of Zeus and Semele, mother of Dionysus. Zeus falls in love with the pious priestess Semele and goes to her, telling her that he will do whatever she asks, but she must never seek to see his true form. Hera, disguised as an old woman, plants the seeds of doubt in Semele’s mind that the person she has been lying with is only claiming to be Zeus; and so Semele requests that Zeus unveil his divine visage. Since no mortal can withstand a god’s true shape, Semele burns to a crisp, though Zeus saves their son, Dionysus, from her smoldering body. There is a parallel to the Swan Knight stories in general, but Wagner draws even more directly upon this myth: Elsa is not a priestess, but she is the embodiment of purity (insofar as a woman can be); the knight is sent from God to save her, as she sings in the (undeniably beautiful) arias Einsam in trüben Tagen and Euch Lüften; but they are torn apart because a sorceress casts doubt in the mind of the maid about who it is she’s going to bed with. Wagner wants to demonstrate “that it may have the direst consequences if one doesn’t go to bed at the right time” (Nietzsche again). That is, if Elsa had been the “good woman,” if she had simply shut up and put out, instead of putting up some resistance, she would have been granted everything she had desired: not only a righteous husband, but, in a year, Lohengrin would have returned her brother. Her heirs would have been of the noblest race of mankind. Instead, the lovers to lose each other, and Elsa loses her life from the grief of parting with the knight. But unlike the Greek and medieval tales, Wagner gives the knight no heir (though he does bring back Elsa’s brother to lead their people). Why—? Wagnerian prudishness and misogyny.
The moment Elsa breaks down and asks Lohengrin his name and lineage, Friedrich storms in and is slain by the knight. Let us not miss this metaphor: when purity falls, so, too, does honor. They must go hand-in-hand, and it is only the men in this play who do not falter in their convictions. In his quest to create this Christian morality tale, Wagner makes an apology of Gotteskampf, the practice of two men battling to the death in order to determine which is in the right—a barbaric practice that endured throughout the Middle Ages: through Gotteskraft (God’s power) the winner will be decided; the weaker the man, the more protected by God he will be, if he is in the right. Wagner also wants pride to offend: in fact, he spells this out explicitly. During Euch Lüften, Ortrud overhears Elsa and hatches a plan, and then asks the German gods to help her in the bitter Entweihte Götter! She asks Elsa to help her redeem her name and her lands, and after the girl agrees, and is so sure that she can help Ortrud that she requests the sorceress be in the wedding party in the morning, Ortrud tells the audience that she sees in Elsa pride, which will be her downfall. However, it is rather the Christian virtue of pity that first gains Ortrud access to Elsa. This Wagner wishes to brush past—do not consider this! he begs with Ortrud’s aside.
Because it is Wagner, there is also the alarming motif of German Nationalism: first he ties German greatness to Christian greatness through the Holy Roman Empire; he then has the Threat from the East be the impetus for the king’s visit (he wants to build such an army “so no one will dare insult the German realm”); and lastly, in the final scene, the chorus and king sing, “Für deutsches Land das deutsche Schwert! So sei des Reiches Kraft bewährt!” (“For German land, the German sword! Thus will the Empire’s might be proved!”) This is the most overt, and the most unnerving, political line in the piece. The ring of that line cannot be too shrill in our ears, though we look backwards now to the receding shadow of das dritte Reich. It is no wonder, with lines such as these, that after the war the Germans were uncomfortable with Wagner being performed until only very recently. The Germans—who only now, only those of my generation, are beginning to feel the weight of Auschwitz lifted from their shoulders.
Having said all that—having come to terms with the abhorrent politics of the piece—Lohengrin (which was first performed for Goethe’s 101st birthday, with Liszt conducting) is a wonderful opera. It may not be a good introduction to the genre, and at four and a half hours, it is truly a Wagnerian epic, but it gives the listener great joy—especially when one does not think, but allows oneself simply to feel, as Wagner would have wanted. And the staging of the Lyric is grand. Its stark, white backdrops with minimalistic-but-intricate sets and props, and its caged staging behind and between scrims, is awe-inspiring and imaginative. There is also the piece of music that every girl—and therefore every boy—knows: the Bridal Chorus, “Treulich geführt,” known colloquially as “Here Comes the Bride,” an iconic piece of music that alone places Wagner firmly among the greats, even without his Ring or his Parsifal. Lohengrin is a middle work that showcases Wagner’s strengths: the vocal melodies meld and blend beautifully with the orchestration, which, with Wagner, is not always the case. This opera would be a good introduction to the composer. And the Lyric executes it with great care, and great success.
Date reviewed: 2.16.11
For full show information, check out the Lohengrin page at Theatre In Chicago.
At the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL; call 312-332-2244, www.lyricopera.org; tickets $25-$227, through Mar. 8, 2011. Running time is 4 1/2 hours, with two intermissions.