A fairytale slides toward darkness in The Met Opera's new 'Lohengrin'
Would you ever marry someone without knowing their name, origin, or history — knowing that if you ever asked for that information, they would leave you? No, this isn’t a reality show like Lifetime’s Married at First Sight, but a pivotal plot element of Richard Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin, which will air on the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network at noon on Saturday on WRTI 90.1 FM and at wrti.org.
If that plot tidbit sounds like something out of Brothers Grimm, Lohengrin is a bit like a fairytale, or at least a dream. The opening strains of the overture introduce the dreamy Grail motif. And how many would-be brides have dreamed of walking down the aisle to the classical crossover staple “Treulich geführt” (Guided in faith), the famous wedding chorus that starts the third act?
Like any good fairytale, Lohengrin has a battle for good over evil, a wicked character dabbling in the dark arts, and a major character-testing challenge in between. If you guessed that the test might have something to do with — oh, I don’t know, not knowing a person’s name, you’re spot on. Beyond this fundamental intelligence challenge, Wagner explores one of his favorite topics: faith and the divine.
In the opera, an unknown knight arrives in Brabant, present day Antwerp, to champion the duchess Elsa against accusations of killing her brother Gottfried, the rightful heir to the throne. This arrival fulfills Elsa’s dream that a knight would be sent by God to defend her. Her accuser Telramund, in concert with the sorceress Ortrud, hopes to get rid of Elsa and take power of Brabant for themselves. After the knight successfully defeats Telramund, Elsa agrees to marry him, but she must have faith in this divinely-sent hero, never questioning him about his name or origins.
The pagan Ortrud sews the seeds of doubt in the Christian Elsa, inevitably leading her to pose the forbidden question, rendering the marriage null and void. Before leaving Brabant, the knight reveals himself to be Lohengrin, Knight of the Grail and son of Parsifal. Elsa’s brother Gottfried, who it turns out was turned into a swan by Ortrud, returns in human form to take the throne. Elsa falls dead from grief as Lohengrin departs.
The swan is symbolic not only for its uncommon beauty and life-long monogamous pairings; it’s also viewed as a sacred creature by the Knights of the Grail. (Opera lovers may recall that Lohengrin’s father, Parsifal, is chastised by the Knights for killing a holy swan with bow and arrow in a consecrated forest.) The “swan knight” arrives to be paired with Elsa with the expectation that they will be together for life. In the wild, swan couples rarely break up, but when one of the pair dies, it has been documented that the surviving member goes through a depression and in some cases even dies of a broken heart. For Elsa, her brokenhearted death comes before Lohengrin departs the stage.
If the names Lohengrin and Parsifal, or Perceival, sound familiar, they come out of Arthurian legend. Placed in early Medieval times, Lohengrin forms an unofficial triptych of Wagner operas with historical and mythological connections: Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1848), and Parsifal (1882). A central character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser is Wolfram von Eschenbach, inspired by the historical poet and minnesinger who wrote the medieval epic poem Parzival, in which Lohengrin briefly appears as a supporting character in the poem’s final chapter.
The Met had such a triumph with a 2013 production of Parsifal by François Girard that the director was invited to create a new staging of Lohengrin — 17 years after the austere fluorescent light boxes from Robert Wilson’s controversial production last descended from the rafters. Given the family lineage of the two title characters, having the same director create new productions for both operas was a provocative concept.
Girard made connections between his productions of Parsifaland Lohengrin in both sets and costumes. Parsifal’s son Lohengrin dons the same simple white shirt and black pants worn by the Knights of the Grail in Girard’s Parsifal. Both are set in some post-apocalyptic world, although Lohengrin’s realm seemingly takes place in the rough-hewn underground as Brabantians see the world beyond them through an oculus revealing the skies and galaxies above.
The production was originally to have been co-produced with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb attended a rehearsal in Moscow; by the time he returned to New York, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was underway. A few days later, Gelb dissolved the partnership with the Bolshoi. Still, he believed in the Girard production and decided to move forward, recreating it from scratch at the cost of $1 million. The curtain rose on Girard's new production of Lohengrin at The Met on Feb. 26.
With Yannick Nézet-Séguin guiding the musical proceedings, the premiere was lauded for its music-making, if less unanimously for the production. Writing in the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe noted that Nézet-Séguin “conducts this grand score with a sure sense for the elasticity of pace that makes Wagner’s scenes breathe.” Onstage, a powerhouse cast is headed by Polish tenor Piotr Beczała in the title role, with American sopranos Tamara Wilson as the trusting Elsa and Christine Goerke showing off a more evil side as Ortrud. Helping her out as the conspiratorial Telramund is Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, with Austrian bass Günther Groissböck filling out the bottom in ensembles as this historic Henry the Fowler.
Though it has had over 600 performances at The Met, more than any other Wagner opera there, Lohengrin has only been performed eight times since 2000. On March 18, the opera will make a welcome return to the airwaves. Be sure to tune in to WRTI 90.1 FM or streaming online at wrti.org for a dreamy and fairytale-like experience.
Lohengrin will air on the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network on Saturday, March 18 at noon on WRTI 90.1 FM and at wrti.org.