Thursday, December 2, 2010

Swords and Swans

I went to see LA Opera's production of Lohengrin last Sunday, and I liked it quite a bit, despite its daunting length (over 4 hours) and the fact that Ben Heppner portrayed a hefty and weary-looking old Lohengrin, and not a young and dashing hero.

The music was gorgeous (and I did not know beforehand that "Here Comes the Bride..." comes from this opera), but it was the story that drew me in and kept me mesmerized. It was both too simple and too convoluted in that usual opera way, and altogether silly. And yet, at its heart it was a fantasy pure and simple - and you know how I love a fantasy. The costumes may have been blood-stained WWI uniforms, but the setting was a castle by the sea, and I could well imagine armor and gowns.

Lohengrin is based on Arthurian legends - apparently, he is the son of Parsifal, Knight of the Round Table and Keeper of the Holy Grail. (For a synopsis of the opera, which will tie my fingers in knots if I repeat it all for you here, see the Metropolitan Opera's succinct summary.) Arthurian legends are fascinating for the way they mix paganism and Christianity, magic and holiness. The Holy Grail itself makes for quite a wild story - even if you ignore all the Celtic/Arthurian bits, you've still got this magical cup, given to Joseph of Arimathea by Jesus, that provided Joseph with food and drink for 42 years! This reminds me of certain magical kettles, bags, and tablecloths that provide never-ending feasts.

Although Elsa is annoyingly passive and Lohengrin doesn't exhibit many heroic qualities (we have to take it on faith that he is a hero), Ortrud (played by the fabulous Dolora Zajick) is a vivid and fascinating character. She's a witch who, having finagled a marriage with Count Telramund of Brabant, is determined that her pagan gods (Wotan, Freya, et al) must once again come to power in Brabant and overthrow that wussy upstart religion called Christianity. Yes, she uses deceit and magic in her schemes - and yet, if this were a Norse myth, Ortrud would be a heroine of the first order. The world of her gods is disappearing fast and so she's desperately, bravely fighting back.

And she does score a victory of a sort. Lohengrin will only agree to marry Elsa and save Brabant from the invading Hungarians if Elsa will swear never to ask him who he is and where he comes from. Even his name is forbidden to her. Where have we heard this kind of ultimatum before? Don't ask me my name! Don't go into that room! Don't look behind you! For if you do, all is lost. Well, Ortrud manages to infect Elsa with enough niggling doubt ("what if this mysterious man isn't sent from God but is a sorcerer instead? I mean, he arrived on a swan-driven boat, for goodness' sake!") that Elsa can't even get through her marriage night without breaking down and begging Lohengrin to reveal his secrets.

Lohengrin reveals all but then departs back to his mystical heavenly realm, leaving behind some folks who are hugely irritated with the all-too-fallible Elsa. If only she could have trusted her man, had a little faith - because that's what those ultimatums are all about. And it's true that faith is necessary for both relationships and religion - but did Lohengrin give Elsa any real reason to trust him so utterly? She dreamed about him and he arrives, and everyone assumes he is there to rescue them and so are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Elsa has to bear the full brunt of trust - and of course she ends up dying.

I don't think that Ortrud dies - but she doesn't get control of Brabant, either (because Elsa's brother, the heir to Brabant, is rescued by Lohengrin from his enchanted form. Yes, he was the swan!!). I like to think that Ortrud lives on to scheme on behalf of her beloved gods, against all odds.


  1. How funny--I was at that same performance of Lohengrin with another librarian that day! It was my first Wagner--I enjoyed it but wish it had been a more traditional production. When they were all singing "the swan, the swan" and there was no swan to be seen, it seemed unintentionally comic! but the singing was gorgeous, even if the tenor's voice did crack a few times.

  2. I agree - there should have been a swan! That army tent action just didn't do it for me...

  3. I have seen a production with a swan boat (it sort of slid across the stage on runners), and it was pretty silly -- in a wonderful operatic kind of way.

    And I have seen Wagnerian productions with the traditional armor and horned helmets and golden braids. You know, it's all good.