Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: Lohengrin Revisited, Part Two

As we observed in last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, Act I of Lohengrin is a “public” spectacle. As such, Act I is about “appearances”: that is, how the characters choose to portray themselves in public.

For example, what’s-his-name – the knight in shiny armor (“Waffenschmuck” in German) – would “appear” to be a God-sent hero. But in truth, we – as an audience – don’t really know that yet. In fact, we don’t know anything about him, not his name, where he’s from, whether he’s got a Quaalude problem, nada, and really, what’s with the swan?

Friedrich von Telramund would “appear” to be an honorable knight of Brabant, yet he has sworn what “appears” to be false witness against a young-ish, dizzy blonde virgin, and that’s lower than whale poop. As of yet, we know little about his wife, Ortrud, except that she’s proud and imperious and seems to have a problem with swans. Of the principal characters, the only person who we sort of “know” is the distressed damsel herself, Elsa, who is pretty much exactly what she appears to be: a lonely, helpless, day-dreaming, kind of kooky post-adolescent duchess-in-waiting who has lost her parents and her brother and has a thing for guys in silver outfits.

Where Act I is loud, blustery, “in-the-public-eye,” and filled with rituals and cardboard choristers acting like, well, cardboard, the opening of Act II is quite different: it is “private,” even intimate, and it is about people behaving like people. It’s in Act II that we get to know one of the most interesting characters in all the operatic literature: Ortrud: a villainous, conniving, sorceress/mantrap, someone who makes the Queen of the Night look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Writes the famed Wagner scholar Ernest Newman:

“Ortrud become the source and origin of the ultimate disaster. Wagner makes her the antithesis of all that Elsa stands for – the woman incapable of love set against the woman who is all love, the old Germanic paganism in implacable opposition to the “new” Christianity. Telramund, weak but not in himself evil, is only a pawn in the great game the masterful Ortrud is playing.”

Scene 1

Like the three scenes of Act I, the five scenes of Act II are continuous, unmarked by any real break in the action. Act II takes place out-of-doors, in a courtyard within the castle of Antwerp. Wagner’s stage directions indicate the following:

“It is night. The windows of the [knight’s quarters] are brightly lit, from the building can be heard the sound of triumphal music. Telramund and Ortrud are sitting on the steps. Both are dressed in dark, shabby clothes. Ortrud, resting her head in her hands, is staring at the brightly lit windows of the [knight’s quarters]; Telramund is looking sullenly at the ground. Long gloomy silence.”

Be aware that we are going to spend a substantial amount of this post focused on this utterly extraordinary scene. It is, to my mind, one of the greatest scenes in all of opera, and to my eye and ear, Waltraud Meier as Ortrud and Tom Fox as Telramund perform it pretty much as well as it can be performed!

Telramund breaks the silence. Pulling himself up, he blurts:

“Get up, companion of my shame!
Daylight must not find us here.”

Ortrud – the “companion of Telramund’s shame” – doesn’t move, but she does sing, her fury barely controlled:

“I can’t move. I am bound to this spot.
From the splendor of our enemy’s feast
let me suckle a deadly poison, that will
put an end to our shame and their joy!”

Are these guys a fun couple, or what?!

In a traditional opera, what we just heard would have been sung as a recitative: a half-sung, half spoken, simply accompanied, and syllabically set (meaning one musical note per syllable) passage, a passage in which the words and the actions they represent are of primary importance.

But Wagner’s version of this passage is anything but a “traditionally styled recitative.” In Wagner’s setting, there’s a melodic interest, a harmonic complexity, an accompanimental intricacy and a dramatic quality that goes far beyond anything we could rightly call a “recitative.”…

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