Major Operas | Lohengrin by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

Franz Liszt, the great Hungarian composer whose daughter Cosima married Wagner in 1870, conducted the first performance of the three-act opera Lohengrin at the Court Theatre, Weimar on 28 August 1850.

Wagner provided a blueprint for productions of Lohengrin, just as he did for Tannhäuser, and emphasized the duty of the stage manager not to leave stage business to the individual performers, but to ‘intervene’ for ‘the good of the opera’.

Wagner’s methods in his later music dramas were already in evidence in Lohengrin: for example, the overture was marked by leitmotifs. However, French and Italian influences were still present and gave an air of French grand opéra to the wedding scene. Wagner’s intention to exclude the set-piece arias and other separate melodies was not yet fully in action: the celebrated ‘Bridal Chorus’ for the heroine, Elsa – ‘Here Comes the Bride’ in its English version – escaped the opera stage entirely and became a popular feature at wedding ceremonies. It was, however, largely dropped from Jewish wedding ceremonies in favour of the march by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47) after the Nazi Party in Germany, which shared Wagner’s racist and anti-semitic views, made a national hero of him in the 1930s.

Composed 1846–48
Premiered 1850, Weimar
Libretto by the composer

Act I

King Heinrich arrives in the Duchy of Brabant to rally troops for an approaching conflict, but finds the land divided by civil war and devoid of a leader. He demands an explanation from Frederick von Telramund, who reveals that the Duke has died, entrusting his two children, Elsa and Gottfried, to Telramund. He then adds that Gottfried has disappeared, thought to have been murdered by Elsa. Telramund, meanwhile, has married the sinister Ortrud and is assuming the role of leader. Heinrich offers to judge the matter himself and summons Elsa, inviting her to answer to Telramund’s accusations. She replies that she has had a dream in which an unknown knight appeared to save her. The king rules that the case should be decided by a duel and calls for a contestant to fight for Elsa’s honour. As she prays, a knight appears, in a boat pulled by a swan. He reveals that he has been sent to save her and she accepts him as her champion. They also decide to marry, after she has agreed not to enquire about his identity. The knight defeats Telramund in the duel, but spares his life.

Act II

Telramund berates Ortrud, who claims to have witnessed Elsa’s fratricide, but she maintains that the knight used magic to win the duel. She adds that if they can trick the knight into revealing his name, his power will be lost. Failing this, they can defeat him by cutting off one of his limbs, even if it is only the tip of his finger.

Elsa appears on her balcony and Ortrud calls to her. Elsa, pitying Ortrud, lets her in. Ortrud invokes the pagan gods and tries to...

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