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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Lohengrin

Wagner's medieval legend redefines the words "dream boat."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He who must not be named: Ben Heppner (center) as the swan knight Lohengrin
(oops) in the Metropolitan Opera's 1998 production by Robert Wilson.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 1998 The Metropolitan Opera.
Would you marry a man who saved your life even if you did not know his name and were forbidden to ask? Richard Wagner's sixth opera Lohengrin is a test of faith for its heroine Elsa von Brabant and for the listener, who  is confronted by the composer's distinct style in the grandest manner possible.

Wagner conceived the idea of an opera based on the medieval epic The Swan Knight around the same time that he finished the first version of Tannhäuser. The opera, was written fairly quickly with the complex Act II saved for last (and thus containing the most advanced orchestral writing and harmonies in the opera.) However, as was usual in Wagner's life, fate intervened. The composer embroiled himself in a street uprising in Dresden in 1849, and was forced to flee the then-nation of Saxony and his job as court composer. Exiled in Switzerland, he missed the premiere of the opera which was given by his friend, supporter and future father-in-law Franz Liszt at Weimar in 1850. It was a smash success.

Like Tannhäuser and Dutchman, this is the story of an outsider, in this case a literal knight in shining armor who appears to defend the maiden Elsa on the charge of murder. Arriving seemingly out of nowhere in a boat drawn by a swan, the handsome stranger presents Elsa with the proposal of marriage, with one pre-nuptual hitch: she must never ask him his name or his origins. The marriage happens, but the forces of evil conspire to ruin things for the happy couple and the knight, (who reveals himself as Lohengrin, son of the King of the Knights of the Holy Grail) is forced to leave.

This is Wagner's most successful opera in terms of embracing the ideas of stage convention: big choruses, processional marches and even a courtroom scene that moves along thanks to his successful use of the orchestra in driving the narrative. It also hints at the radical shift his music would take in the decade following its composition, with the dark, ominous music in Act II depicting the plotting of the villainous Telramund and his even more dastardly wife Ortrud. There are memorable aria-like sections for tenor and soprano: Elsa's "dream narrative" in the first act and "In fernem Land," the aria where Lohengrin, to music of the opera's Act I prelude reveals his name and origin to the assembled chorus.

It is also an opera that left the world three cultural legacies: one of them benign and the other two cancerous. The prelude to Act III and the opening chorus "Treulig bewegt, zehut dahin" is the most famous tune to ever flow from Wagner's pen: you know it as "Here Comes the Bride." The other two are the chorus's shout of "Sieg! Heil!" in the first act and Lohengrin's description of his successor as the "führer." Hitler, an opera geek and ardent Wagnerian adopted both for his Nazi movement, to the eternal regret of opera lovers everywhere.

A note on editions: 

Like its title character, Lohengrin has been pretty much invincible on record. It also does not have the edition problems that plague Tannhäuser with the only real differentiation being a cut in the Act Three aria "In fernem land." Before the work's 1850 premiere, Wagner recommended to Liszt that he cut the second stanza from Lohengrin's narration. Today it is rarely heard. (Two recordings, the Barenboim set with Peter Seiffert and the Erich Leinsdorf recording with Sandor Konya are the only ones that include the uncut version of the aria.)

Recording recommendations:

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (Philips/Decca 1962)
This mid-priced recording is one of the best live recordings ever made in the Festspielhaus in that magic year of 1962 when the Philips engineers could seemingly do no wrong. They were helped by Wieland Wagner's almost oratorio-like production, where the choristers do not move about the stage, creating the chance to really hear the singers and the orchestra in this theater's unique acoustic. Jess Thomas is an ardent Lohengrin. Ramon Vinay, a tenor who converted to singing baritone roles later in his career, is a fearsome Telramund. But the real powerhouse here is soprano Astrid Varnay as a terrifying, barn-burning Ortrud. Her glottal laugh in Act II is the stuff of nightmares.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Rudolf Kempe (EMI/WBC 1964)
This is one of the finest studio recordings of this opera, laid down in Vienna by the EMI engineers. Jess Thomas returns in the anonymous title role, flanked by a pair of great singers: Elizabeth Grümmer and Christa Ludwig as Elsa and Ortrud. Radiant sound from the Vienna players under Rudolf Kempe who was a great Strauss conductor but an underrated Wagnerian. The supporting cast boasts Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Telramund (a rare villain turn for the star baritone) and the great Gottlob Frick as an authoritative King Heinrich.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG, 1971)
This studio recording from Munich is a strong rival to the Vienna set listed above, with a comparable cast and iridescent string playing from the Bavarians under their leader Rafael Kubelik. Of the three commercial Wagner recordings that this Czech conductor made for Deutsche Grammophon, this was the only one released at the time it was made--the others had to wait until recent years. It is excellent, with James King ideal in the role of Lohengrin, Gundula Janowitz as a sweet and virtuous Elsa and the young (and vocally secure) Gwyneth Jones chewing the scenery as bad girl Ortrud. Overlooked.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra cond. James Levine (Metropolitan Opera Recordings, recorded 1998)
This is a relic from the Met's disastrous decision to invite Robert Wilson to direct a Wagner opera on its stage way back in 1998. It was released on CD as part of a Met celebration of James Levine's 40th year on that company's podium. Wilson's static stage pictures mean that there is very little noise to disrupt the beautiful sounds coming from the Met pit under James Levine at the peak of his powers. Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt are perfectly cast as the Swan Knight and the doomed Elsa, and Deborah Polaski is a wicked Ortrud and you can't beat the Met chorus.

WDR Synfonorchester Köln cond. Semyon Bychkov (Profil Records, 2009)
This is a concert performance of the opera in good, even glittering stereo sound. The attraction here is Johan Botha, whose bright but never harsh tone is suited to Lohengrin's dreamy, ethereal nature. Adrienne Pieczonka is strong casting as Elsa and carries the first act until her savior arrives. Deborah Polaski's Ortrud is even nastier than her portrayal for the Met, and that's a good thing. Falk Struckmann, who has made a career of playing baddies in Wagner, Berg and Verdi recordings is a solid choice as Telramund although his vocal acting is better than his actual quality of tone. A safe alternate.

Made it this far? Here's your reward: tenor Jonas Kauffmann 
singing "In fernem Land" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andriss Nelsons

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