Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Romantic Opera in Three Acts. Libretto by Wagner Walter Hagen-Groll chorus master
Ronald Schneider · Hans Fuchsberger Reptiteurs
Ralf Hossfeld Assistant ConductorVienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Sir GEORG SOLTI
Heinrich der Vogler, King of the Germans Hans Sotin
Lohengrin Placido Domingo · Elsa von Brabant Jessye Norman
Friedrich von Telramund, Brabantian count Siegmund Nimsgern
Ortrud, his wife Eva Randová · The King’s Herald Dietrich Fischer-DieskauFour Brabantian Nobles Peter Jelosits · Thomas Mohr · Anton Scharinger · Alfred Sramek
Four Pages Brigitte Poschner · Madelyn Renée · Czslawa Slania · Anna Gonda
Saxons and Thuringian counts and nobles, Brabantian counts and nobles, noblewomen, pages, soldiers, serfs.
DECCA 421 053-2
4 discs [222’46”] full-priceNotes and synopses in English, French, German and Italian. Full libretto in German with translations in French, English and Italian Recorded in Sofiensaal Vienna, Nov-Dec 1985 & June 1986. A single disc of highlights is available on Decca 425 530-2. by Ng Yeuk Fan
When a friend of mine asked me to arrange for some music to be played at his wedding, among my choices were the original Lohengrin’s Act 3 “Bridal Chorus”. Though many would have heard of this tune, in childhood games hummed in great jest, or personally experiencing this walking down the ally with your loved one; few would know that this sweet melody is taken from here – one of Wagner’s famed operas.
Central to the opera Lohengrin is the theme ” Du Ärmste kannst wohl nie ermessen, wie zwifellos ein Herze liebt?” meaning, “Piteous creature, can you not understand how a heart can love without harboring doubts?” And indeed, in Lohengrin, a pessimistic account of this well-explored theme is presented in the dramatic Wagnerian proportions.
VERY SIMPLY, the story goes like this…The King of Germany, Heinrich der Vogler arrives in great pomp in the land of the Brabant to muster forces to counter the invading Hungarians. He unexpectedly ends up mitigating the innocence of Elsa von Brabant, who has been accused by Friedrich von Telramund for the murder of her own brother, the Duke of Brabant.Friedrich in turn had been deceived by the evil tongued woman Ortrud to believe that Elsa was guilty. Nevertheless, in greed and ugly ambition, Friedrich had married Ortrud to gain leadership of the Brabant, since she is the last surviving Rabod (a ruling family in Brabant). By condemning Elsa to fratricide, he claims ownership of the land, since he has become next in line to the Duke. An unknown knight, Lohengrin, arrives in a boat drawn by a swan and promises to fight on behalf of Elsa in a battle for honour and truth. Before the fight, Lohengrin begs Elsa to promise never to question his origin and name. Elsa agrees. Expectedly, Lohengrin wins the fight and Friedrich is banished in dishonour.
Through a complicated series of plots, Friedrich and Ortrud both attempt to waggle the steadfast love that Elsa and Lohengrin bear for each other. All their plots to make Elsa question her hero’s name fail and eventually results in the death of Friedrich. Nevertheless, thrown into great confusion, Elsa is finally tempted into questioning the origin of Lohengrin in their bridal chamber. Greatly angst-ridden and without option, Lohengrin reluctantly agrees to announce his identity the next day in the presence of the King.
In the morning, amidst great excitement, he announces that he is Lohengrin, son of the Grail King Parzival and that as a Knight of the Grail, he has been sent to combat evil and defend virtue. Further, Knights of the Grail are vested with a power that will be lost when their name is revealed. Neither the King, who is anxious about the imminent battle, nor Elsa his beloved, is able to persuade him to stay – as no one may look upon the grace of the Grail Knights after they reveal their identity. The swan now arrives to take Lohengrin back to the Grail.
Before leaving, Lohengrin prophesies that the King will be victorious and further reveals that it is Ortrud’s evil spell that has condemned Elsa’s brother, Gottfried, to the form of the swan. He then kneels in prayer and a dove descends from above and hovers about him. The swan sinks into the water and in this instant reverts to the form of Gottfried. Ortrud collapses at the sight of Gottfried. Lohengrin leaves in a boat drawn by the dove, after declaring Gottfried the new ruler of Brabant.
AT ONCE a powerful story, we are reminded, as it were, of the grace of an all-knowing God, who protecting and loving His first created man demands in return a pledge of total trust and unquestioning faith. Yet mythology and folklore is abound with stories that Man [as an aside, it is usually represented by a woman who in fickle-heartedness betrays her husband; it is there in the bible, it is everywhere else…] is unable to cherish this divine love. Wagner dramatizes his belief of the underserving Man in his ‘rephrase’ of this biblical story. The most important character in this opera, from whom the opera derives it title, is played here by Placido Domingo (left). Few in the know would be unfamiliar with this name. However, there are many examples throughout this opera where Domingo fails to live up to my expectation of a true heldentenor. Listen to his warning in “Elsa, soll ich dein Gatte heißen…” – though Lohengrin is to repeat this passage in his attempt to warn Elsa, it is clear that Placido Domingo has not much more vocal reserve to conjure up. Further, his voice sounds tired, tight and laboured throughout. In Act 2’s procession, his flaws become more obvious when pitched against Nimsgern’s heroic voice. Though not ideal, Domingo is at least a passable Lohengrin. Hear him at his best in Act 3, as he reveals his identity with very controlled voice. There are few who live up to this great title – the heldentenor of true heroic propotions. In the past, this realm was filled by greats such as James King. Wolfgang Windgassen in Solti’s Ring (Das Ring des Nibelungen) is passable as Siegfried – he isn’t sufficiently large for my liking. Even Siegfried Jerusalem is ineffective when I heard him in a production of Siegfried conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. As my singing teacher once put it, the true heroic tenor voices are a dying breed of singers; and here in this production, perhaps it is true that Solti did not have any better options available to match his first class line-up.
ELSA, played here by the great Jessye Norman (below left), is heard in top form. Listen as she pronounces, in Act 1: “Des Ritters will ich wahren, er soll mein Streiter sein!”; and then in Act 3 in her agitated pleadings with Lohengrin. She can manage vocal inflections at the soprano passagio without any hint of difficulty. In truly helden- propotions, she rises to full forte and top tessitura without any sign of strain, nor any change in the registration of her voice. A first-class heldensoprano technically – hers is a voice that responds to every whim and fancy that an artist may desire to portray. If it weren’t because this is a recording done in a studio, I would put my money here that Jessye Norman supercedes the already excellent Hildegard Behrens in vocal prowess and the vocally unbeatable Birgit Nilsson in characterisation.Eva Randová is a suitable Ortrud. Though she may lack a covered chest range – whenever she falls below the stave, her sound becomes very buccal. (In some way reminiscent of Schwarzkopf’s lack of a chest sound). This works in her favour as she plays the villainess role together with the very effective Siegmund Nimsgern as Friedrich. Together, they paint an Act 2 with much suspended tension. However, at the important “Entweihte Gotter!”, Randová fails to conjure hatred of genuine helden- proportions. Nimsgern on the other hand is more convincing, listen to his fearless heroic voice in Act 2’s procession “Den dort im Glanz ich vor mir sehe…”Hans Sotin is excellent as King Heinrich, a great benevolent voice befitting the character that he plays – a truly excellent bass-baritone who is a joy to listen to. Fischer-Dieskau, whose voice is known to encompass all genres of singing, brings a small wobble into his role of Herald. This is not a big problem, in fact, I enjoyed the very personal style which he has imbued in his role.
THE Vienna State Opera Chorus responds with great effect throughout and one can hear them in Act 1 in “Steh ab vom Kampf!”, when they persuade Friedrich not to take up the fight. Further, in Act II in the procession of nobles and soldiers and later, including the ladies as well, the chorus responds to great direction by conjuring up much excitement – difficult to match by any standard. Lastly, I cannot forget to mention the very beautiful and moving “Bridal Chorus” in Act 3, performed with much exquisite grace. There is no end to the prowess of this chorus. In line with the great success of his famous Ring, Solti confirms his status as the interpreter of Wagner in our 20th century. His assured direction is audible throughout this production – I can only highlight specific areas which gripped me in fixed amazement. Solti manages the huge tutti section in Act 2 with great intelligence. The chorus rumbles to great effect with solo voices confidently and perfectly placed both in time and volume. Solti here brings out rare choral colours without sacrificing clarity. The excitement of the entire Act 2 is sprung from this pivotal section where Friedrich attempts to challenge Elsa to entertain doubts about Lohengrin’s identity. Solti captures it all with great aplomb. Further, in the introduction to Act 3 – the famous orchestral vorspiel, and in the opening of Scene 2 of Act 3 – there are few orchestras in the world that can match the account here by the Vienna Philharmonic for virtuosity and sheer excellence.Complete with stereophonic considerations and non-instrumental effects, this account of Wagner’s Lohengrin is clearly the only choice to go for, at least for now.
In Singapore, this can be found or ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).To listen to Wagner, Ng Yeuk Fan needs many hours, a good chair with thick cushion, a good pair of speakers, lots of snack and many toilet-breaks..