The Forbidden Question

Although Lohengrin can be seen to deal with some weighty philosophical issues, in its simplest form it can be viewed as a fairy tale. Wagner drew upon history and both pagan and Christian mythology in devising his libretto, and there is one  historical personage depicted, King Heinrich (Henry the Fowler), who has come to Brabant in Saxony to let them know that their lands are threatened by the Hungarian hordes and to enlist their aid in battle.

But he has also come to settle a dispute. The Duke of Brabant has died and appointed Friedrich von Telramund as guardian of his daughter Elsa and son Gottfired. But one day Elsa returned from the forest and said her brother had disappeared. Friedrich claimed Elsa murdered her brother and thus renounced his right to marry her, claiming instead the sorceress Ortrud for his wife. You can probably see where this is headed.

Now there is to be a battle to the death between Friedrich and whomever will fight for Elsa with the King as the judge. The King summons Elsa and she claims she had a dream where she saw a protector appear to her. The King has his Herald summon her protector and on the third summons, a knight appears on the river in a boat drawn by a swan.

The people are amazed. The knight asks Elsa if she will accept him as her defender. Silly question. But he has a condition. She must never ask him his name nor whence he came. Ever. Or all deals are off.

Between Elsa’s innocent demeanor and the mysterious knight’s heroic appearance the King is ready to declare Elsa innocent, but Friedrich insists on the battle to the death. Which he loses. But the mysterious knight spares his life and bids him to repent. Big mistake. Elsa and the knight swear their love and plan to wed amid much jubilation as the curtain falls on Act I.

LohengrinAct II finds Ortrud and Friedrich planning how to defeat the mysterious knight and Ortrud realizes that his weakness is in the Forbidden Question. She must somehow convince Elsa to ask it. (Wagner did not consider Ortrud a villain even though he clothes her with the most evil sounding music; he considered the Forbidden Question to be the necessary question, one that any potential lover should have the right to ask.) So Ortrud spends a good chunk of time ingratiating herself into Elsa’s good graces. And Elsa, innocent that she is, falls for it, and has Ortrud join her wedding party.

Lohengrin is Wagner’s transitional work between traditional opera, which is broken up into set pieces such as arias, choruses, and such, and his later music dramas, where the music is continuously composed with no breaks.

And perhaps the most traditional element in the score is the procession that leads Elsa to the cathedral for her wedding. It would not be out of place in the grand operas being composed in France and Italy at the time. And it is followed immediately by a dialog between Elsa and Ortrud which would not be out of place in one of Wagner’s later music dramas.

Here is that grand chorus of Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral, one of the greatest choruses ever composed for an opera, followed by a taste of the argument between Elsa and Ortrud.

The performance is from the Metropolitan Opera in 1986 with Eva Marton as Elsa and Leonie Rysanek as Ortrud.



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