[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).