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Manchester music reviews

Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera

Lohengrin by WNO

Reviewed by Denis Joe June 2013

 

Antony McDonald updates the action to Bismarck’s Germany. I don’t think I have ever heard the prelude to Act 1 played so beautifully. Lothar Koenings took command of the orchestra from the start, making this as triumphant as last year’s Tristan and Isolde.

 

King Henry (Matthew Best, said to be suffering a sore throat which wasn’t noticeable) has arrived in Brabant where he has assembled the German tribes in order to expel the Hungarians from his kingdom. He also needs to settle a dispute involving the disappearance of the child-Duke Gottfried of Brabant.

 

The Duke's guardian, Count Friedrich von Telramund (John Lundgren), has accused the Duke's sister, Elsa (Emma Bell), of murdering her brother in order to become the Duchess of Brabant (Dank, König, dir, daß du zu richten kamst!/Die Wahrheit künd ich, Untreu ist mir fremd). He calls upon the King to punish Elsa and to make him, Telramund, the new Duke of Brabant, since he is the next of kin to the late Duke, after having renounced to his right to Elsa's hand in matrimony, having taken Ortrud (Susan Bickley) instead. The King calls for Elsa to answer Telramund's accusation. She enters, surrounded by her attendants. She does not answer to the King's inquiries only lamenting her brother's fate (Einsam in trüben Tagen/hab ich zu Gott gefleht). The King declares that he cannot resolve the matter and defers it to God's judgment through ordeal by combat. Telramund, a strong and seasoned warrior, agrees enthusiastically.

 

The King with Elsa in LohengrinWhen the King asks Elsa who shall be her champion, Elsa describes a knight she has beheld in her dreams (In lichter Waffen Scheine/ein Ritter nahte da), The Herald sounds the horn twice in summons, without response. A boat drawn by a swan appears on the river and in it stands Lohengrin. He disembarks and greets the king, and asks Elsa if she will have him as her champion (So sprich denn, Elsa von Brabant: /Wenn ich zum Streiter dir ernannt,), Elsa kneels in front of him and places her honour in his keeping. He asks one thing in return for his service: she is never to ask him his name or where he has come from. Elsa agrees to this.

 

Telramund's people advise him to withdraw because he cannot prevail against the Knight's powers, but he refuses and the combat area is prepared. Each contender prays to God for victory for the one whose cause is just. Ortrud privately expresses confidence that Telramund will win, and the combat commences. The unknown knight defeats Telramund but spares his life. Taking Elsa by the hand, he declares her innocent and asks for her hand in marriage. The crowd exits, cheering and celebrating whilst Telramund and his paegan wife, Ortrud, sadly walk away in defeat.

 

Act 2 opens with a short orchestral introduction. Dejected, Ortrud and Telramund hear the celebration music in the distance and begin crafting a plan to gain control of the kingdom. Knowing that the mysterious knight asked Elsa to never ask of his name or where he came from, they decide that it would be best for Elsa to break her promise (So gält' es Elsa zu verleiten,/daß sie die Frag ihm nicht erließ?). They approach the castle and Ortrud spies Elsa in a window. Hoping to spike Elsa's curiosity to find out about the knight's name, Ortrud begins speaking underneath the window about the knight. Instead of curiosity, Elsa offers Ortrud friendship (Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen/so traurig oft erfüllt). Angrily, she walks away. Meanwhile, the King has enlisted the knight as the Guardian of Brabant. Telramund convinces four of his friends to join him in taking control of the kingdom, and they meet outside of the wedding hall along with Ortrud. In an effort to stop the wedding, Ortrud declares that the knight is an imposter and Telramund states that the knight practices sorcery. The King and the knight banish Ortrud and Telramund, and Elsa proceeds with the ceremony. The Prelude to act 3 is one of those fantastically energetic pieces and include one of the most famous tunes in Western music: Treulich geführt ziehet dahin, better known as Here Comes the Bride.

 

Telramund challenges LohengrinWithin the bridal chamber, Elsa and the knight are happy to be together, and Lohengrin sings his most beautiful aria, which turns into a duet; Das süße Lied verhallt; wir sind allein, one of Wagner’s most tender scenes. It isn't long before Elsa finally gives into doubt. Reluctantly, she asks the knight to tell her his name (Wie wär ich kalt, mich glücklich nur zu nennen) and where he came from, but before he can tell her, they are interrupted by Telramund who has just broken into their room with several henchmen. Without delay, Elsa hands the sword to her husband and he kills Telramund with a swift swing of the sword. The knight tells her that they will continue the discussion later and he will tell her everything she wants to know. He then picks up Telramund's lifeless body and takes it to the King. After telling the King of what happened, he informs that he can no longer lead the kingdom against the invasion of the Hungarians (Mein Herr und König, laß dir melden).

 

Now that Elsa has asked him his name and birthplace, he must return there. He tells them that his name is Lohengrin, his father is Parsifal, and his home is within the temple of the Holy Grail (Ihr hörtet Alle, wie sie mir versprochen,/daß nie sie woll' erfragen, wer ich bin?). After saying his goodbyes, he walks to his magic swan to return home. Ortrud, having learned of what has happened, bursts into the room to watch Lohengrin depart - she couldn't be happier. When Lohengrin prays, the swan transforms into Elsa's brother, Gottfried. Ortrud is a paegan witch; she is the one who turned him into a swan. When seeing Gottfried again, she dies. Elsa, stricken with grief, also dies.

 

Lohengrin is an outstanding opera and I would recommend it to those who are new to Wagner, as it is not only his most approachable opera, but it also tells us so much about his later grand operas. Dramatically I think it is his weakest, and the ending is unsatisfactory. The scenes where Lohengrin is being transported in a boat, drawn by a swan, are silly. But it is not the original story of Lohengrin, which Wagner found appalling; a 13th century epic full of courtly deeds and chivalry. Instead this Lohengrin relied on The Swan Knight, a simpler retelling of the Lohengrin story, written in 1257 by Konrad von Würzburg.

 

I have seen one other production of Lohengrin where the scenes were ridiculous spectacles, and it must be hard to pull off. For this production, I can’t imagine them being done any better. Musically, however, it is a delight. The cast and orchestra were outstanding. At one point in the third act groups of brass were situated in different parts of the house. It was a fantastic idea, which showed off the acoustics to great effect.

 

The production was uncontroversial unlike the staging of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, at the Dusseldorf opera house, set in a concentration camp, which was cancelled after reaction from some members of the audience were said to be so affected “psychologically and physically that they had to seek medical help afterwards”. So why is it that Wagner is picked out for such hatred and not, say, the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne who in his novel The Marble Faun described Jews as "the ugliest, most evil-minded people" and "maggots when they overpopulate a decaying cheese." Or even Dickens, who’s Fagan, in Oliver Twist is a prime example of crude caricature? I think I would agree with Marie Todeskino when she writes: “He helped hoist anti-Semitism out of dirty bars or scarcely read pamphlets and into the comfortable milieu of the middle class”. But he could not have done that if the middle class were not themselves open to anti-Semitism.

 

The way it is, it appears that Wagner was single-handedly responsible for the spread of anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Yet as the historian Hannes Heer pointed out in Todeskino’s article: "In the first third of the 19th century, a certain anti-Judaism shaped by Christianity dissolved into anti-Semitism, which fixated more on contemporary society", and in Lohengrin we do get the belief in the superiority of Christianity, a view intended to justify hatred of the Jews, and one that would certainly not be tolerated in these multicultural times. The fact is that anti-Semitism was rife throughout American and European societies at the time. The myth of the Jewish bankers and industrialists causing the 1930's slump spoke of the petty mindedness of anti-modernism.

 

Wagner could not be held responsible for the rise of the Nazis in Germany. That he wrote the pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik is beside the point, as there is no evidence that it was a popular one; it was far too crude. It is also beside the point that he was Hitler’s favourite composer. Wagner used the glorious past as a means of expressing an artistic ideal, intended to appeal to the revolutionary, ideals of the national uprisings that were sweeping Europe of his time. His music spoke of progress, not of reactionary ideals.

 

There can be no doubting that Wagner, the man, was, to put it mildly, a real shit. But he was a real shit who composed some of the most glorious and inspiring music of all time. And in this, the year of his bicentenary, that is what we should be celebrating.

 
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