Deep thoughts about Wagner’s Lohengrin

vlcsnap-00012Led by some excerpts on one of Karita Mattila’s recital CDs and one too many evenings with Tristan und Isolde, I watched a 1980s Met production of Lohengrin because it was the only one that the library has. The hair was a little big for my taste, but at least I know what the whole thing sounds like now.

By the end of this opera, both the women are either dead or banished and the Duchy of Brabant is in the mature hands of a twelve-year-old kid. Order has been restored, I guess. Then again – perhaps this is just me – when I am told that the opera takes place in Belgium, something in me knows from the get-go that this is probably not going to turn out well. (The scene is given as Antwerp, which is in modern-day Belgium, but the medieval Duchy of Brabant if I remember correctly included areas that are now part of the Netherlands).

On the face of it, this is one of those “don’t ask, silly girl!” stories where a young woman is directed to not ask a question, or not investigate something really interesting, and when – being human – she does, bad things happen and it’s her fault. Elsa of Brabant ends up in this sticky situation because she has been accused by this guy Telramund of murdering her brother, and she desperately needs a knightly champion. Unfortunately there is no CSI: Medieval Brabant, with techno music and amusing investigative apparatuses that would allow a group of gruff but attractive individuals to figure out what had happen to Elsa’s brother. Rather, each side gets a guy, and there is Wagner music, and the two guys beat the shit out of each other before a crowd of witnesses, and it is assumed that whoever God allows to win this contest was backing the right horse. So, Elsa needs a champion. (Elsa’s brother Gottfried, just FYI, is not dead. He’s a swan.) It is an interesting concession to reality that Elsa cannot be her own champion. After all, if God were really deciding the contest, he could give her the strength to beat up a great big well-trained knight-type guy, right? But that is out of bounds; she has to find someone else to do it.

She has dreamed that a champion will arrive, and at the last minute one does, but he will back her only under one condition: that she not ask who he is or where he is from. He also wants to marry her. This all sounds great to Elsa, because 1) it’s better than the alternative and 2) as a young lady in a Wagner opera, she operates according to Logick (it’s like Magick, but it isn’t really magic; it just provides you with motivations that make sense under certain highly stylized conditions) and Logickally this is exactly what ought to happen. So, this mystery guy beats the shit out of Telramund, and everything looks like it’s going to be fine.

Elsa is not the only one operating according to Logick, however. Telramund could have just apologized and admitted that he was mistaken about the murder, after which he could have sought forgiveness according to the dictates of whatever religion everyone felt to be appropriate – there are priests in medieval Brabant, right? – but according to the rules, he and his wife are exiled, which makes them mad and causes the rest of the plot. Elsa, after some pressure from Telramund’s wife Ortrud, asks the mystery knight who he is – he is Lohengrin – and of course then Lohengrin has to leave, after taunting Elsa that if she’d just not questioned him, he would have stayed and she could have had her brother back. Of course, it’s not written as taunting, he’s just very religious and sad, but it comes off that way, a little bit. But then Ortrud comes back and accuses Lohengrin of using witchcraft to turn Gottfried into a swan, and Lohengrin prays, and then Gottfried is safely un-swanned (what would that be in German? Unbeschwannt? I missed it in the subtitles) and Elsa collapses dead and that is the end.

It really, really makes you wonder why people play music from this at their weddings.

9 thoughts on “Deep thoughts about Wagner’s Lohengrin

  1. I have a friend who is frequently asked to perform Der Hölle Rache at weddings. Go figure. If I were to get married again (very unlikely) and if it were to be a church wedding (even more unlikely) I would insist on Treulich gefûhrt but only if the choir were garbed à la Neuenfels.

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    1. A friend of mine had someone singing “ombra mai fu” as she walked down the aisle; pretty melody of course, but given that the song is about a person whose choice of love object is decidedly weird….

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  2. Well, you really can’t build a meaningful long-term human relationship, if the other party won’t even tell his name…

    I have always wondered why Elsa dies in the end (other than it clearly was a popular thing to do in the operas of that time).

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    1. I wondered that too – it’s like the logic of the story requires that she can’t go on and have a normal life, but there’s nothing that will actually kill her…so she just drops dead. But you’re right – a 19th audience probably wouldn’t be surprised at all.

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