Sunday, March 17, 2019

Richard Wagner, Lohengrin (1850)


I honestly had no idea that the tune commonly known as "Here Comes the Bride" originally came from this opera. A good thing to know to trick people into thinking you're smart, and/or to win money.

What surprised me about Lohengrin was that, even though it's generally seen as being of a piece with Holländer and Tannhäuser, it's really not very thematically similar. This one comes closer than those two do to just being a straightforward tragedy. No men are redeemed by the love of good women. I suppose if you're willing to reach a bit, you could say that Germany itself is redeemed, but that's just a very arbitrary thing tacked on at the end, and it certainly isn't the focus.

So the idea is that the young heir to the dukedom of Brabant was, allegedly, killed, and that the guilty party was his sister Elsa. Their guardian, Telramund, has accused her thus. So the king declares that they're going to have a single combat to determine the truth of the matter, always the best way to arbitrate these things. So it's Telramund vs A Guy Elsa Saw In A Dream, who, lucky break, does end up showing up riding a swan (or possible a swan-drawn boat; we don't actually see it in this production, which is probably a good thing--you've gotta figure it's inevitably gonna be pretty goofy-looking). He says he'll be her champion and then marry her, but just one thing: she can't ask his name or anything about his past--which, really, is a very clear indication that this is doomed from the start; imagine not even being able to know your husband's name. Maybe they should just agree that, for simplicity's sake, she'll call him Douglas). She agrees to this; he defeats Telramund but spares his life, and the two of them marry--but not before Telramund and his even eviller wife, Ortrud, have planted seeds of doubt in Elsa's mind. She asks to know who he is; he reveals this in front of the whole court (the secret is in the title!) and also that the rule is that he has to leave if his identity is revealed. So he leaves, the young duke is restored 'cause why not, and Elsa dies of grief. FINIS.

What really struck me as odd here is that the denouement of the story doesn't really have a moral component, or at least not one that I'm able to see as such. You could, I suppose, if you're inclined to be really strict, say that, yeah, Elsa's wanting to know anything whatsoever about her husband is a moral failing, but that just doesn't seem reasonable. The whole thing seems like one of those folk tales with arbitrary rules for what the hero is or is not supposed to do. Most odd--but the music, again, is unimpeachable, so whatever.

I saw this Met production, from 1986--a very traditional staging, though also extremely eighties, which may or may not appeal to one's aesthetics (Peter Hofmann in particular is very hair-metal-ish in the title role, which under the circumstances, I suppose is appropriate). I read an NYTimes review that DID NOT LIKE this production--that thought most of the singers were mediocre at best, but whatever, man--maybe when I'm more experienced I'll have a better idea of what productions to hate, but I thought everyone was fine. I particularly liked Leif Roar (what a name) and Leonie Rysanek as Telramund and Ortrud, the evil power couple.

Anyway, now I've seen Wagner's three main pre-Ring operas (he also wrote three really early ones, which are not particularly acclaimed nor widely performed), so now I'm probably ready for...the main event.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

This may be silly, but I'm almost more excited to find out which production of The Ring Cycle you end up going with than what you think of the operas.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

You could, I suppose, if you're inclined to be really strict, say that, yeah, Elsa's wanting to know anything whatsoever about her husband is a moral failing, but that just doesn't seem reasonable. The whole thing seems like one of those folk tales with arbitrary rules for what the hero is or is not supposed to do.

I think the comparison is an entirely valid one (considering Wagner's tendency of basing his operas on old folklore). But if there's a moral statement to be had, then it is surely, just like in the fairy tales in question, that You Should Keep Your Promises And Follow The Rules, and if you don't think you can stick to a promise you make as part of a deal to get some benefit or other (i.e. a spouse), then you shouldn't make that promise in the first place. So, contractualism for beginners, basically.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Sweveham pontificated to the effect that...

The whole "no questions allowed" business is taken directly from the medieval story of Lohengrin that Wagner used as source material.

Interestingly, Lohengrin is just a variation of a recurring story in medieval literature called the "Knight of the the Swan" which a hero rescues a damsel in distress on the condition that she shall not ask for his name.

I've always interpreted this story as a metaphor for religious faith, which makes sense for the pious medieval writers who originally used this story. Wagner was however irreligious, so what he meant by his opera adaptation is up in the air, if his intentions even matter for us today (death of the author and all that).

I'm loving these opera reviews by the way, please keep them coming.

3:59 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Thank you! I'm never quite sure to what extent I'm just shouting into the void on this blog, so that's very nice to hear.

6:41 AM  

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