Lohengrin, Opera by R. Wagner
Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin has an intimate association with the city of Prague. While on one of his many visits to the Bohemian capital, Wagner discovered Lohengrin – the anonymously authored legend of the Knight of the Swan – and was inspired to set its tale to music. It is particularly fitting then that the opera should now make its return to Prague.
When Lohengrin received its premiere, on 28 August 1850 in Weimar with none other than the great Franz Liszt conducting, Wagner himself was absent. After being involved in the May Uprising in Dresden the previous year, the composer had fled to Switzerland and remained in exile from his native Germany for nearly a decade. Although Lohengrin was an immediate success, Wagner did not get to see it in its entirety until 1861 in Vienna.
At the beginning of the opera, Elsa is falsely accused by Telramund of killing her own brother, Gottfried, the rightful heir to the dukedom of Brabant. She is innocent, but Telramund desires the dukedom for himself. Elsa prays for a champion and one is delivered: Lohengrin who arrives on a boat drawn by a swan. He offers her his protection on the condition that she never asks him his real name.
Lohengrin defeats Telramund in combat, but fatefully spares him. As Elsa and Lohengrin prepare for their marriage, Ortrud, Telramund’s wife, maliciously convinces Elsa, if she is to be Lohengrin’s wife, that she should learn his true identity. Tragically Elsa gives in to her demands and sets up the opera’s bittersweet conclusion. Gottfried returns, but Elsa dies of grief: by knowing who her husband really is, she must lose him forever.
Notwithstanding its much-loved overture, the most famous extract from Lohengrin is probably the “Bridal Chorus” (or, to give its more common name, the “Wedding March”). One does wonder, nonetheless, how many couples would choose it for their own walk down the aisle if they had read the opera's libretto. Listening to a familiar melody in the context for which it was originally written always offers a different perspective.
Wagner of course intended that his operas be seen and not just heard. He was a master in ratcheting up the tension, through his narratives and the wonderful music he wrote to accompany them. Despite the length of his operas, one never wants them to end. What he created for both voice and orchestra, just like the eponymous hero in Lohengrin, really does at times seem to come from heaven.