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English National Opera Guide : Wagner :…
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English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Lohengrin (1993)

by English National Opera, Nicholas John (Series Editor), Richard Wagner (Librettist)

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Richard Wagner

Lohengrin

English National Opera 47

Calder, Paperback, 1993.

8vo. 96 pp.

First published, 1993.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Wagner's ‘Alter Ego’ John Deathridge
Wagner's ‘Lohengrin’: between grand opera and Musikdramma Thomas S. Grey
History, Women's History and Beyond History in ‘Lohengrin’ Janet L. Nelson
Lohengrin in Brabant Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Thematic Guide

‘Lohengrin’ by Richard Wagner
English translation by Amanda Holden

Act One
Act Two
Act Three

Bibliography and Contributors
Discography

==================================================​

Some things never change. For example, even after 47 volumes published in the course of more than a decade, the ENO guides remained faithful to their passion for exceptionally ugly covers. I am used to that unfortunate tradition, and I have long since learned to ignore its hideous manifestations. And yet, I cannot help being appalled by this particular cover. What is that mess supposed to mean? How exactly does it relate to one of Wagner’s most breathtakingly beautiful scores? Oh, never mind.

To be fair, some things did change. The Bibliography and the Discography are notable examples. Both are considerable improvements over their old versions.

In the old days, namely during the first half of the 1980s, the Bibliography consisted of several anonymous paragraphs with general reading recommendations about Wagner’s life and works. It was pretty much the same in all volumes. In the second half of the 1980s, when the guides about Tannhäuser and Lohengrin appeared, this was changed. The Bibliography was now written by Stewart Spencer, one of the foremost experts on Wagnerian literature, and concentrated on the work in question. The case of Parsifal (1986) is something of an exception: the Bibliography is uncredited, but it does deal mostly with Wagner’s swansong.

To the best of my knowledge, the Discography of Lohengrin is unique among the Wagnerian volumes in the series. Unlike all others, it is not in table form, which makes it slightly less convenient to use, but it is more comprehensive and more updated than anything before. Altogether three studio and nine live complete recordings are listed, two of them available only on video (VHS or laser disc in those ancient times), one released in both audio and video mediums. They cover almost half a century, from 1942 to 1990, but only CD releases from the early 1990s are given: no tapes, LPs, UK and US catalogue numbers, or other obsolete stuff. Needless to say, the Discography has become dated during the last twenty years or so. But it is still a good starting point.

The illustrations also look surprisingly fine. Most of them are reproduced on full page, but even those twice smaller please the eye with remarkable – for the series at any rate – resolution. Two of Wagner’s own, and rather crude, sketches for the 1850 premiere in Weimar are also included by way of quaint curiosities. The List of Illustrations is adorned by one totally hilarious, though unfortunately anonymous, cartoon showing a bunch of stage technicians pulling hard a swan on wheels with the imposing Knight standing on it. One must be careful with the captions, though. On p. 42 we are supposed to have “Peter Seiffert as Lohengrin and Lucia Popp as Elsa”, but the couple on the photo looks suspiciously like Rene Kollo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Whether or not the production really is “in Munich, 1989” is anybody’s guess. I suspect it’s Karajan’s Salzburg production from the 1970s.

The essays have always been on the hit-and-miss principle. So are all three in this book. All contain points of considerable interest, yet all suffer from the inclusion of irrelevant material or far-fetched fantasies. All are indifferently written, at best. Compared to other volumes, the background of the libretto is notably sketchy. The excerpt from the Grimm brothers is their summary of the anonymous thirteenth-century epic Lohengrin (c1280) that is supposed to have been Wagner’s major source. It is a fascinating tale and it does contain much of the opera’s plot (plus several crucial but unexplained differences: Elsa doesn’t die, Ortrud is completely missing, etc.), but Janet Nelson states in her essay that Wagner viewed this epic with “suspicion and repugnance” and regarded Konrad von Würzburg’s The Swan Knight as the “simpler” and “deeper” representation of the myth. But she never elaborates on that, and, incidentally, her piece is the weakest of the three. It is a nice history lesson on the Middle Ages from a feminist point of view, but it has little to do with Wagner’s Lohengrin. Which is a pity, because it does contain some stimulating remarks, for instance that in creating two powerfully antagonistic female characters, Elsa and Ortrud, “Wagner reproduced medieval realities more faithfully than he knew” because they reflect “the ambivalence of medieval Christian tradition” as regards women. Too bad most of the essay is an exercise in irrelevant academic dullness.

John Deathridge fares a great deal better when he tries to explain why Lohengrin’s once stupendous popularity has steadily diminished ever since the early twentieth century and why, perhaps more significantly, Wagner changed his opinion just a few years after the completion of the opera. The author’s answers are conventional but not unconvincing. The opera’s peculiar brand of “medieval dualism and theological mystery” must have looked quaint even “in the context of the German idealism of the 1840s”, all the more so a century later. Wagner’s tempestuous personal life around the time of composition – revolutionary activities, reading a good deal of philosophy (Hegel and Feuerbach mostly) – may have been instrumental in turning him into the opera’s earliest critic; Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, for instance, might have thrown “a rather different light on the Christian symbolism of the opera”. By 1851, just one year after the world premiere, Wagner had already turned to new projects and there was “a whole world” between them and Lohengrin; the opera “would be long forgotten” if he could have his own way, he further confided in a private letter. He was much less direct in his published writings, but he nevertheless stated that the Christian imagery is “fortuitous” and argued, somewhat vaguely, for a deeper understanding of myths that would reveal their common characteristics and real significance for our innermost secrets. Mr Deathridge calls the latter “ingenious” and I take it he uses the word in a pejorative sense, as if Wagner, whatever his private opinion, disingenuously tried to excuse the faults of his work in public and put it in a more favourable light in regard to his later masterpieces.

If my assumption is correct, it might be useful to observe that Mr Deathrigde can’t make up his mind whether to endorse Wagner’s fuzzy self-criticism or to dismiss it. Possible reason about the author’s muddled ambivalence (ironically similar to Wagner’s) may be the fear of self-contradiction. A decade earlier, as regards Der fliegende Holländer (ENO 12), Mr Deathridge argued against Wagner’s attempts to inflate the biographical importance of his early works as precursors to his mature music dramas. Now he is faced with a similar, albeit more complicated, situation that may also conform to his old point of view. But he seems to find (in spite of himself?) Wagner’s defence more convincing than his attacks, even going as far as stating that in 1851 the composer could see Lohengrin “paradoxically as a thoroughly modern work pointing to a utopian future precisely because it returns to the most fundamental origins of human feeling.” If so, one must admire the intellectual honesty of Mr Deathridge.

Unfortunately, his essay is compromised by an excessive amount of psychological rubbish. I admit I am prejudiced in this respect. I don’t buy the attempts of some people to turn psychology into an exact science; if it is science at all, it certainly isn’t an exact one. Oddly enough, Mr Deathridge doesn’t seem to take too seriously himself the 1911 “study” of Otto Rank, a pupil and colleague of Siegmund Freud, but why he wastes so much of his precious space with it I really don’t know. Among Herr Rank’s more brilliant conclusions is that “the forbidden question serves to hide an incestuous relationship which is revealed and therefore proscribed the moment the identity of the hero is known”, as Mr Deathridge explains. Mr Rank impressively argued this Oedipal hypothesis by reminding his readers that Wagner’s mother died during the composition of Lohengrin and that many of his works include adulterous or incestuous relationships. Just brilliant! Even more so, Herr Rank “had little trouble in showing that the attachment is still strong enough for Telramund to function, psychoanalytically speaking, as the evil father whom Lohengrin has to confront in order to save his surrogate mother Elsa.” Read the libretto, listen to the music, and see for yourselves if you can accept this – interpretation. (By the way, it remains unclear how much of Herr Rank’s penetrating discourse is about Wagner’s opera and how much about its mythical foundations. If your patience and reading knowledge of German far exceed mine, you may find out here.)

Nor is Mr Deathridge fabulously convincing on the so-called “Christian imagery”. He makes too much of it, methinks. Lohengrin may have a strong religious taste, but it is scarcely more Christian than Parsifal, not at all that is. Mr Deathridge considers the dove that appears above Lohengrin’s boat to symbolise the Immaculate Conception and he links the swan’s transformation into Elsa’s brother with “the idea central to Christian doctrine that only body and soul together can define an individual, and that rending the two asunder is the most terrible prospect anyone can face.” To me, this seems very thin. I am pretty sure Wagner was far from committed Christian long before he read Feuerbach, and I very much doubt he went to so much trouble to incorporate into his opera inane concepts like the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. He never, to the best of my belief, showed any indication that he believed in either. Furthermore, “soul” can certainly be substituted with more convenient words (e.g. spirit, personality, character) and treated in a thoroughly secular way. Lohengrin is admittedly more religious than Parsifal, but in what degree this is related to Christianity is a hotly debatable question.

Mr Grey’s musico-historical analysis is the longest essay in the book. It consists of three titled sections and runs to some 18 pages (including the illustrations and the music examples). I can’t say I found it a terribly illuminating read. As far as the music in particular is concerned, Mr Grey concentrates on keys and their transitions; some of these I can hear and appreciate, but most are beyond my ears and understanding. Nor do I find his writing exhilarating. It is descriptive almost to the point of being unreadable. It is very short on analysis. Occasional passages in dark purple, either by Mr Grey himself (“the Grail music appears to hover shimmering and diaphanous in empyrean heights and brilliant sunlight…”) or quoted from Theodore Adorno’s preposterously highfalutin prose (“the moments when the subjective abdicates sovereignty and passively abandons itself to the archaic, the instinctual…”), don’t make the reading easier. For what it’s worth, here are several points from the three sections of Mr Grey’s essay which I found useful for further reflection.

“‘Lohengrin’ and the ambivalent legacy of grand opéra” is closely related to the essay’s title and it raises the important issue of Wagner’s debt to French opera, all the more fascinating because of his often hostile, to say the least, reaction to it (which was at least partly caused by professional frustration and envy at the success of Meyerbeer and the like, as Mr Grey shrewdly observes). He further notes that massive ensembles with prominent chorus, which roughly take two-thirds of Lohengrin, are clearly in the tradition of grand opéra from the 1830s and 1840s. The “interrupted ceremonial procession” was especially celebrated as a terrific dramatic coup-de-théâtre. Auber had one in La muette de Portici (1828) and so did Halévy in La juive (1835). I doubt many people today remember Reine de Chypre (1841), but Wagner reviewed it for both French and German papers and even made the piano-vocal score for Schlesinger during his hard times in Paris. And in this opera Halévy had “no less than two interrupted nuptials”. Mr Grey points out that Wagner’s treatment, though perhaps less dramatic than Scribe’s best efforts, as in Le Prophète for instance, is distinctly superior musically. But when he tries to provide some profound insight into this musical superiority, he is bogged down in tedious detail and I am lost.

“The dramaturgy of musical ‘colour’” does not benefit from mentioning Baudelaire’s “synaesthetic correspondences” and “reciprocal analogies” (what?!), but its main argument is subtle and worth considering. Briefly, in Lohengrin Wagner exploits, not so much his famous (or notorious) leitmotif technique, but rather describes the characters through specific orchestral colours. The idea is compelling but hardly new. The very man who conducted the world premiere (1850) of Lohengrin recognised Wagner’s uniqueness in this respect in his influential essay ‘Lohengrin’ et ‘Tannhäuser’ de Richard Wagner (Paris and Leipzig, 1851). Mr Grey is gracious enough to quote and explain:

‘Instead of combining or dividing [the various instrumental families] according to conventional or arbitrary practice, [Wagner] prefers to treat them as distinct bodies, carefully matching their timbral characters to that of the dramatic situations or characters. This manner of orchestration is among the most striking features of his manner of composition, and the one which first commands our attention.’ Liszt goes on to note the association of woodwind with the role of Elsa, the use of divided strings in a high register to evoke the realm of the Grail, and the consistent use of brass and stage trumpets to accompany the appearances of the King. Such consistent instrumental associations or attributes take on a kind of leitmotivic aspect, as Liszt intimates.

Having said that, Mr Grey slips into Baudelaire and (again) his favourite key transitions, and I, a poor swimmer, am again left at sea. By the way, at one place he mentions Wagner’s program note about the famous Prelude to Act One, but he carelessly forgets to source it. This wonderful piece of Wagnerian rhetoric should have been included as a “bonus track” together with the summary by the Grimm brothers. I did Mr Grey’s job and discovered Wagner’s unforgettable description in vol. 3 (p. 231) of his Prose Works as translated by William Ashton Ellis. Read it and, if you can bear Richard’s effusions, I guarantee you’ll never again listen to the majestic arc of this Prelude without remembering them.

“Reminiscence motif and Leitmotif” explores Lohengrin’s place within the Wagner canon. If not dramatically or philosophically, at all events musically it was a considerable advance over the previous two “Romantic operas” and an important transitional work. The difference between “reminiscence motif” and “leitmotif” is highly subjective. In theory, the former changes little or not at all and is used mainly for identification of certain character, object or mental state; the latter is far more versatile, comments extensively on the action and the characters, but it may simultaneously serve a structural purpose. As Mr Grey demonstrates, “not all of the motivic recurrences in Lohengrin involve extensive development but Wagner does demonstrate an ever increasing ingenuity in adapting motifs to dramatic situations.” How much further Wagner developed may be gathered by a simple comparison of Thematic Guides. The one about Lohengrin contains only 26 motifs and cross-references in the libretto are very rare; two or three per page at most; many pages don’t contain even one. Compare this with Siegfried (ENO 28), a work composed between 1854 and 1871, thus coming from Wagner’s full maturity, whose Thematic Guide contains nearly 60 (!) motifs, virtually all of them are also used in other parts of the Ring. As for cross-references in the libretto – well – seldom is there a page without at least five or six of them; in several isolated cases, their number may swell to more than 30! Clearly, it was a long way from Lohengrin, not to mention earlier works, to the music dramas in which Wagner’s genius blossomed completely.

To be honest, though, this comparative method is a little misleading. It emphasizes quantity over quality too much. For example, the Thematic Guide about Der fliegende Holländer (ENO 12) contains 40 motifs and more frequent references in the libretto than in the case of Lohengrin, but no one would argue that it is leitmotivically the more advanced work. The reason is that most of the motifs in Der fliegende Holländer fall into the “reminiscence” category. They are not genuine leitmotifs because they undergo little transformation and serve a limited dramatic purpose. Keeping this caveat in mind, the comparison is somewhat useful. Indeed, in A Communication to My Friends (1851) Wagner stated bluntly – at least as bluntly as his convoluted style permits – that he was aware of the difference between the two types of motifs, his own development in the field up to that point, far greater than that of any other composer, and the immense potential of the leitmotiv technique that was yet to be explored.

For the bilingual libretto alone, this ENO guide is, of course, very much worth having. My only minor complaint is the irregular layout of the verse in many places – very long lines followed by very short ones; rather difficult to follow – but since I am told it follows the one in Wagner’s Complete Works and was prepared by Stewart Spencer himself, I don’t complain. The essays, however, are of slender value. The first is provocative but muddled, the second is informative but tedious, and the third is almost entirely off-topic. This is the reason why the book on the whole doesn’t score higher. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 15, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardLibrettistmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Amanda HoldenTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714538523, Paperback)

The English National Opera Guides were originally conceived in partnership with the English National Opera and edited by Nicholas John, the ENO's dramaturg, who died tragically in an accident in the Alps. Most of the guides are devoted to a single opera, which is described in detail—with many articles that cover its history and information about the composer and his times. The complete libretto is included in both the original language and in a modern singing translation—except where the opera was written in English. Each has a thematic guide to the most important musical themes in musical notation and each guide is lavishly illustrated. They also contain a bibliography and a discography which is updated at each reprint. The ENO guides are widely regarded as the best series of their kind and excellent value.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:19 -0400)

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