[Adelina] Patti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Patti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­ner, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Patti cares most intensely for the beauty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cisely what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clumsy as singers, but actu­ally obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Patti were to return to the stage and play Isolde, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the drama half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isolde from her which they will never learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­ner hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­petto for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music critic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­ner to their reper­tory, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be posted above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­ner means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­ity of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exactly as Mozart did…I am really tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­ated with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nately for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­ner him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­ity of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­ily about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­ity of tone are likely to be jet­ti­soned early on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isolde, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­fully and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­ogy from the world of sports: if Amina in La Son­nam­bula and many of her bel canto cousins can be com­pared to a hundred-yard sprinter, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mina and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­ity to main­tain a fluid, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung power but with the abil­ity to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Bellini or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­ruses and finales, which — when prop­erly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel canto fans.

Wag­ner him­self was thor­oughly famil­iar with bel canto opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­tory. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Norma by writ­ing an addi­tional aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Norma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his early years in Paris, Wag­ner tried to talk the great bass Luigi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­trayal of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Norma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­ner often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­vanni Bat­tista Rubini, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tilena from I Puri­tani and remarks that Bellini wrote melodies love­lier than one’s dreams,” Cosima Wag­ner wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubini to him, how won­der­fully he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entirely dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­ner enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Norma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosima quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have never learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel canto entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bello,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­fully sung but mined for every emo­tional and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel canto tra­di­tion, Wag­ner uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of worldly expe­ri­ence is reflected in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E-flat above mid­dle C to A-flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­ner con­structed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­mento, and for a soprano to color phrases by using crescendo and dimin­u­endo, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exactly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle never sang the role onstage, she recorded the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E-flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slowly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­mento down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pion, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb drama, con­veyed solely through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able power when she approaches her phras­ing from a bel canto stand­point, rather than being con­tent merely to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vienna State Opera dur­ing a visit to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vienna State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F-sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­matic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the drama to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes cleanly, exactly on pitch, ele­gantly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­ily ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynamic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F-sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of power in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, never to com­pete with it, a method Wag­ner incor­po­rated in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­ner, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the drama. But even a cur­sory glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pella singing, which Wag­ner uses to great dra­matic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­alded by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­simo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pella. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral color Wag­ner uses is marked pianis­simo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­endo fur­ther from that pianis­simo. Clearly Wag­ner meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by purely vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phrases, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Another exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pella singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, shortly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­ner had the audac­ity to write an a cap­pella quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay squarely on pitch, Wag­ner makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), finally sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pella. When Wag­ner brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­ner also clearly under­stood the won­der­ful bel canto tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­atic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tempo, then much more quickly. One of the tricks bel canto com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cally above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pier vocal lines of the other soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­ner fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­eral rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tively dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intensely rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Bellini or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­ner keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phrases, finally ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for seven and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B-flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-chamber scene of Act III that Wag­ner wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­macy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel canto singing from the tenor and soprano. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of rubato that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that truly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völker as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vividly, both based on the deservedly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völker and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­ducted by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be really swept away by the power of Wag­ner at his bel canto best, lis­ten to the thirty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völker and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ingly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­fully con­trolled, dreamy qual­ity of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­fully that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völker and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­ily under­stand why tenors like Enrico Caruso, even Fer­nando De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caruso never recorded any of the arias, De Lucia recorded an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­fully alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melodic line as glo­ri­ously spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völker, and Müller, one is also reminded of the sheer power a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­ner made his dra­matic and emo­tional points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel canto music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mural by August von Heckel (1882 – 83).