Opera Scotland

Lohengrin

Music
Richard Wagner (born Leipzig, 2 March 1813; died Venice, 13 February 1883)

Text
The composer.

Source
Derived from medieval literary sources, including Wolfram von Eschenbach (c1200).

Premières
First performance: Weimar (Court Theatre), 28 August 1850.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 8 May 1875.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 3 November 1875.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
Wagner’s sixth opera was composed in what was, for him, a relatively short space of time. However this was the period of the 1848-9 revolutions around Europe, and, as a notorious radical, he was persona non grata in most of the German states where a performance might have been possible. Eventually, while he lived in exile in Switzerland, the premiere was given in Weimar, where Liszt was in charge of musical affairs. The Holy Grail idea, to be worked on more fully in Parsifal, is a dominant element of the plot. Lohengrin, the eponymous hero, is a Knight of the Grail, and he is pitched in combat of every kind against the forces of darkness, in the person of Ortrud, a supporter of the old Norse gods, and her husband. While stagings of the piece elsewhere remained scarce, extracts quickly became popular, especially the preludes to the first and third acts. The bridal chorus soon became a common fixture at weddings all over the world, in spite of the fact that the wedding in question had a less than auspicious outcome.

Main Characters
The King’s Herald (baritone)
Heinrich (Henry the Fowler), King of Germany (bass)
Friedrich von Telramund, a nobleman of Brabant (baritone)
Ortrud, his wife (mezzo-soprano)
Elsa von Brabant (soprano)
Lohengrin, a Knight (tenor)

Plot Summary
The setting is Antwerp in the first half of the tenth century. Gottfried, the young Duke of Brabant has disappeared, leaving his sister Elsa to inherit the Duchy. Telramund accuses Elsa of murdering her brother, and the populace gather in an open meadow by the river for the king to pass judgment. It is customary that a woman has the right to be represented in combat by a champion, but no one comes forward. A mysterious figure appears, a knight who says that after victory he will marry Elsa, but on condition that she never ask his name. She agrees, the knight wins the duel, and Telramund, disgraced by his perjury, is sentenced to exile. As preparations for the wedding begin, Ortrud, an advocate of the old pre-Christian religion, continues to badger her husband to find a way of seizing the duchy himself. This means killing the knight. Meantime she works on Elsa’s own doubts as to who this strange man could be. After the marriage, Elsa and her husband are left alone, and she gradually expresses her doubts about the terms. Telramund and his accomplices stage a raid, but he is killed by the knight and the others flee. Back at the meadow, the knight explains that his marriage is nullified. Ortrud is exultant in spite of her widowhood. She believes the old religion is triumphant, and explains that she used a magic spell on Duke Gottfried, who is now a swan. The knight utters a prayer and the young Duke is restored. Before he goes, the knight explains that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, and a Knight of the Grail. As he leaves, Elsa drops dead.

RECORDINGS

EMI (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1963

Conductor: Rudolf Kempe
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Elisabeth Grümmer (Elsa), Jess Thomas (Lohengrin), Christa Ludwig (Ortrud).

Rudolf Kempe is one of those conductors who always seemed to find something fresh to say about a piece of music. He brought out melodies in operas which did not necessarily seem that melodic (Elektra being a case in point). He was a wonderful Wagner conductor, and Lohengrin benefits particularly from his approach, since it can seem long-winded in the wrong hands. The Vienna Philharmonic play superbly, and it is difficult to imagine a better cast. Jess Thomas was one of a great group of Wagner tenors to come out of the USA around this time, and he produces a beautiful lyric sound. Elisabeth Grümmer is a wonderfully pure-voiced Elsa. Her Edinburgh Festival roles with the Hamburg company in 1952 included Pamina (repeated in 1956), Agathe, and Eva. Christa Ludwig is frightening as Ortrud (with some lovely velvety singing in the second act). The other roles are just as good. With Gottlob Frick as the King, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Telramund and Otto Wiener as the Herald, it is difficult to imagine this being improved on.

TELDEC and others (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1953

Conductor: Joseph Keilberth
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Eleanor Steber (Elsa), Wolfgang Windgassen (Lohengrin), Astrid Varnay (Ortrud).

This recording is another classic which seems to go on forever. As a live performance from the stage at Bayreuth, it is inevitable that there will be quite a lot of distracting stage noise when the chorus needs to clump on and off, but otherwise the sound is generally quite acceptable. The two American sopranos contrast wonderfully. Steber was perhaps better known as a singer of Mozart than Wagner (she came to the very first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 as Countess Almaviva), but if any Wagner role gains from a Mozart stylist then it is Elsa. Varnay was a famous Brünnhilde and Isolde and sang Ortrud regularly for years, with a balefully magnetic delivery. She had a long career and also came to Edinburgh as Isolde (1958) and Herodias (1975). Wolfgang Windgassen seemed ageless in the years after the war, and though he sang the heavier heldentenor roles including Siegfried and Tristan very well, Lohengrin perhaps shows him at his best. Telramund and the King are given notable performances by the magnetic baritone Hermann Uhde and the great bass Josef Greindl – he was a fixture at Bayreuth for many years and another singer who visited Edinburgh with a number of German companies in a range of roles from Mozart to Wagner, Strauss, Berg and even Reimann. Joseph Keilberth’s dramatic conducting of the Dutchman and Lohengrin from this period have long been deservedly famous, but in recent years his work on other operas has also become available so that we can hear them in context.

The Cast

Elsa von Brabant
 sister of the missing Count Gottfried
First Nobleman
 of Brabant
First Page
 
Fourth Nobleman
 of Brabant
Fourth Page
 
Friedrich von Telramund
 Count of Brabant
Heerufer
 Royal Herald
Heinrich
 Henry the Fowler, King of Germany
Lohengrin
 a knight
Ortrud
 Friedrich's wife
Second Nobleman
 of Brabant
Second Page
 
Third Nobleman
 of Brabant
Third Page
 

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