The MET Opera House/ Tuesday March 14th, 2023.
Welcome back friends!
Welcome this week, once again to the fabulous world of opera, and fittingly, to another masterpiece from the lyrical (and perhaps spiritual) world, welcome to a complex, controversial, and brilliant creator of operas, (and later musical dramas), and also a great admirer of Italian composer, Bellini (1801-1835) of “Bel canto”, and long lined melodies, and also a history enthusiast, in particular of medieval historical battles, especially between Germanic Paganism and Christianity, welcome to revolutionary German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
And welcome to a breathtakingly exalted, spiritual, historical, tragic and romantic work of his, involving confrontation between polytheist Germanic Paganism and its worship of the natural world, of the cosmos, and of sorcery, and monotheist, mystical, supernatural and glorifying Christianity, welcome to a medieval set work for which Wagner also wrote the libretto, based on an illustrious medieval legend, a famed work from the middle of Wagner’s career:
Welcome to 1850 “Lohengrin”.
An opera “Lohengrin”, whose first act especially moves me, because of its mystery and supernatural atmosphere, and the awesomeness of the music. The second act to me, is a bit long, and I don’t like that the Pagans sorcerers are depicted as evil. And in the third act, I am of course bewildered by the unconditional faith one needs to have, to be granted heavenly help, according to this legend. But ladies and gentlemen, this is tragic opera of course. So that is how it has to be, and what a wonderfully moving, and musically stunning opera, “Lohengrin” proves to be.
This history context known, let’s get back to our “Lohengrin” opera, set in medieval times.
So, what is this “Lohengrin” opera about?
Based on a medieval legend and poem, “Parzifal”, by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1160–1220), itself inspired by older texts (more on that later), and set in Belgium, near the German border, in the 10th century, “Lohengrin” is a 3 act work, about a mysterious, heaven sent, Christian knight (who will turn out to be affiliated to the Holy Grail), in shining armor, who appears supernaturally, arriving in a boat, drawn by a swan, to “champion” a young woman Elsa, heiress to the Duchy of Brabant (in Belgium), unjustly accused of the murder of her brother Gottfried, who has vanished.
Before I move on, what is the Holy Grail?
Various traditions describe the Holy Grail as a cup, dish, or stone, with miraculous healing powers, sometimes providing eternal youth, or sustenance in infinite abundance, often guarded in the custody of the Fisher King, the last, in a long line of British kings, tasked with guarding the Holy Grail.
This Fisher King is both the protector of the Holy Grail and the physical embodiment of his lands, but a wound renders him infertile and his kingdom barren. Unable to walk or ride a horse, he is sometimes depicted as spending his time fishing while he awaits a “chosen one”, who can heal him. Versions of the story vary widely, but the Fisher King is typically depicted as being wounded in the groin, legs, or thigh. The healing of these wounds always depends upon the completion of a hero-knight’s task (That is in a nutshell the story of the legend of Perceval or Parzifal or Parsifal: more on this in a second).
The Holy Grail is located in the hidden Grail castle, and an unfinished chivalric roman written by Chrétien de Troyes, around 1190, entitled “Perceval, the story of the Grail” or in French, “Perceval ou le conte du Graal”, inspired other renditions, including Wolfram von Eschenbach’s own “Parzifal” as mentioned earlier, which Wagner adapted for this “Lohengrin” opera, making Parzifal, the Protector of the Holy Grail, and Lohengrin, spoiler alert, Parzifal’s son, and a holy knight, sent by the Holy Grail, to come to the rescue of an innocent, unjustly accused of murder, Elsa, of the Duchy of Brabant.
And Wagner was so taken by this legend of the Holy Grail, that his last musical drama, would be about Lohengrin’s father “Perceval or Parzival”. It is entitled “Parsifal” and is from 1882. But discussion about that “Parsifal” opera, will be for another time.
So back to Wagner’s 1850 “Lohengrin”.
So, in a nutshell, this unusually “otherworldly” opera, “Lohengrin”, whose medieval atmosphere overflows with great spirituality, miracles, magic, Norse gods, Christian symbols, and secrecy, tells the story and the destiny of a mysterious, chivalrous, supernatural, unnamed knight, who offers to save Elsa of Brabant, and offers to marry her, on the imperative condition that she never ask his name and origin. Of course, as the opera progresses, Elsa will eventually do just that, which will of course, immediately lead to the knight’s departure, and to Elsa’s collapse, and also, to the return of Elsa’s brother (“freed” from a spell, as a swan).
Before we get into the summary of all 3 acts, let’s listen, from recent Met Opera dress rehearsal, to the mystical, gorgeous opening prelude to this opera, evoking the Holy Grail:
So mystical and beautiful.
In Act 1, we hear of Elsa’s murder accusation in front of the King Heinrich (present in the Duchy, to wage war against invading Hungarians), by Count von Telramund, who was initially supposed to marry Elsa, yet, has wed since, the pagan sorceress Ortrud.
Called to defend herself, Elsa relates of a dream she has had, of the knight who will save her.
Let’s listen to short excerpt of Elsa’s “celestial” dream, from a recent dress rehearsal:
Such gorgeous music and singing.
And as 4 heralds call for the “knight”, with trumpets, the knight, after the second attempt, indeed appears miraculously, led by a swan.
The knight pledges to marry Elsa, yet, on his one condition (to never be asked his name or origin), and defeats the Count von Telramund in combat, lets him live, so he can repent, and establishes with this defeat, Elsa’s innocence.
In Act 2, the Count von Telramund and his wife, the pagan sorceress Ortrud, swear vengeance, and Ortrud even asks some Pagan Norse Gods for help.
Ortrud calls to both the most powerful Norse God: “Odin” or “Wotan” or “Wodin”. A god associated with wisdom, healing, death, royalty, knowledge, war, battle, victory, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and asks as well, for the help of Freia or Freyja, associated with love, beauty, fertility, sex, war, gold, and magic for seeing and influencing the future, and associated as well with youth and hope, to help her (Ortrud) come up with a plan to avenge her Count von Telramund.
Interestingly, on a side note, while Freia remained with the gods and fed them daily, golden apples, they were all powerful and youthful, but when “Wotan” parted with her, as the price for the building of “Walhalla” or “Valhalla”, or in Old Norse “Valhöll” (a “hall” of slain warriors who live there blissfully under the leadership of Odin. It is depicted as a splendid palace, roofed with shields, where the warriors feast on the flesh of a boar slaughtered daily, and are made whole again each evening), so when Wotan parts with Freia the youthful, the rest of the Gods suddenly became weak and weary, and a shadow rested over the world.
And Wagner would mention her (Freia), and develop this epic legend about gods being punished for their weakness again, in his later “Ring” tetralogy (actually called “Der Ring des Nibelungen”), a cycle of 4 grandiose and soaring music dramas, composed by Richard Wagner, before and after 1850 “Lohengrin”, over the course of about 26 years, from 1848 to 1874. The four parts that constitute the “Ring” cycle are: “The Rhinegold”, or in German,”Das Rheingold”, “The Valkyrie”, or in German, “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried”, in both languages, and “The Twilight of the Gods” or in German, “Götterdämmerung”.
But more discussion around Wagner’s “Ring” tetralogy, will be for another time.
Let’s get back to “Lohengrin” in Act 2:
Manipulative Ortrud, then, after asking the Norse Gods for help, finds innocent and good hearted Elsa, and finds in her, a compassionate friend, when she tells Elsa of her sadness, because of the banishment of the Count.
Ortrud then, starts to suggest, that “her” (Elsa’s) knight, now officially proclaimed a “Protector” of the Duchy of Brabant, is actually, an impostor, accuses him, (the “knight”) of sorcery, in front of the king and Elsa, and demands that he reveals his identity. Elsa refuses to have the knight answer the question, and they get married at the cathedral.
In Act 3, Elsa and “her” knight, and now husband, in their bridal bedroom, sing lovingly to each other, and yet, Elsa then, devoured by curiosity, is still compelled to ask her husband and knight, about his identity.
At that moment the Count appears to attack the knight, who kills the Count in self defense.
As the Count’s body is taken to the king, the knight tells the king, that he can no longer lead the army against the invading Hungarian forces. The knight explains that he comes from the temple of the Holy Grail, located at the distant Monsalvat castle. He also explains that “Parzifal”, who is the defender of the Holy Grail, is his father, and that he, his son, is himself, a knight of the Holy Grail, and that he is named, “Lohengrin”.
Let’s listen to an excerpt of this beautiful key moment, which unveils the mystery around Lohengrin’s identity:
Just magnificent, performed with such humble feeling and great command, and of course, how sad.
And because Lohengrin has had to disclose his identity, and that others have not been capable of showing unconditional trust for a while longer, he now (Lohengrin), needs to leave with the swan who brought him, and explains that, if he (Lohengrin), had stayed married one year to Elsa, her brother Gottfried, would have been returned to her.
Also, we finally understand, that the sorceress Ortrud, has cast a spell on Elsa’s brother (Gottfried), and is herself (Ortrud), overjoyed, at the idea that Elsa’s brother, is still a swan.
Yet, before leaving, Lohengrin prays. The swan is transformed back into Elsa’s brother (Gottfried), who is named ruler of Brabant, and Lohengrin disappears, led by the dove of the Holy Grail, while Ortrud and Elsa collapse.
So sad and tragic.
What to say of the production?
That François Girard is just an incredibly gifted Production designer. (I also loved his previous “Parsifal” production). And for “Lohengrin”, what a stunning, imaginative, yet true to these various spiritual cultures, this production is. Loved the cosmic imagery (so enjoyed the lighting and projection design of stars and moons), the mysticism filled with pagan and Christian imagery (as both “cultures” of course influenced each other over the centuries), found in this truly impressive, and simply awesome production.
I particularly loved the king’s throne, made of what I imagine (for the Celts would have been an oak tree), and what I imagined here, was an ash tree, symbolizing for many, in Norse culture, because of the solidity of the bark, power and immortality, and viewed as a link, and even sometimes as a mediator, between heaven and earth.
I also loved the idea of the “Oculus” which is the only natural source of light from the inside. It symbolizes the union of the earth and the sky, that allows human prayer to ascend to the heavens. It links architecture to the cosmos. it was also used as a sun dial to track the time of day.
And also, I particularly enjoyed observing what looked like (to me) “ropes” of destiny, coming from the sky and entering the Oculus, and typical of Norse beliefs.
And also, I also really liked the idea of seeing the 4 (I wish there had been 7) herald trumpets on stage, when Elsa calls (to God) for her knight, as it reminded me of the seventh trumpet in the Bible, which heralds the best news in man’s history, when all flesh will see Christ’s return.
And also, I loved seeing 4 out of 7 main colors of Catholic vestments: white, for purity, birth and resurrection, red, for blood and martyrdom, green, for ordinary time and hope of resurrection, black, for mourning. (The other colors seen in church being: purple, for suffering, pink, for joy, blue, for Mary).
And also, I was all for a more “modern” look for Lohengrin, and separate from the rest of the cast, as he embodies a holy character. Yet I wished that Lohengrin (who was wearing a simple crisp white shirt and a black “suit” pants), had a more knightly/interesting “costume”, and it could also be simple, yet dazzle a bit more, as Lohengrin is indeed holy, even if he is a knight in disguise. And I must say, that I was not a big fan of his “untucked” shirt look.
And I loved that the production did not illustrate anything representing the Holy Grail: so much more powerful that way, in my opinion, to leave it up to the audience’s imagination.
What to say of the conductor and performers?
That all of them, including the (huge) chorus, were, as was the orchestra, wonderfully conducted, with great energy, talent, and care, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s masterful baton.
And three singers, particularly stood out for me:
First, Polish tenor, bel canto expert, and singing for the first time the title role, Piotr Beczala, was absolutely breathtaking as Lohengrin: such beautiful singing, and yet depth, and great passion. Expertly convincing, in his portrayal of this secretive, mysterious, loving, powerful, yet unassuming knight, sent to rescue a damsel in distress, by the Holy Grail.
Second, in the moving role of the young Elsa von Brabant, clear sounding, American soprano, Tamara Wilson was wonderful, and moving, as the good hearted and yet devoured by her curiosity, to find out the only forbidden information, which she couldn’t suppress.
Third, German bass Günther Groissböck, as King Heinrich, was fabulous, and regal, and totally believable as a strong, powerful and just, king.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Wagner’s tragic, and yet so incredibly ethereal, otherworldly, and mystical “Lohengrin”, filled with incredible spiritual and sorcery drama, and beautiful, exalted music, admired last Tuesday, at the MET Opera, in great company: what a heartbreaking tale, set to awesomely stunning long musical lines, and incredibly well performed by the chorus, and especially by 3 characters: how spectacular is Beczala, as “Lohengrin” the secretive, loving, powerful, and unassuming knight, and what a moving “Elsa”, Wilson embodies. And finally, what a charismatic King Heinrich, Groissböck portrays as well, and finally what a poetic, awesomely spiritual and glorious production, which enhances so beautifully these powerful cultures, and allowed us to enjoy fully, this wonderfully celestial music.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊