“[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.”
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.
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.
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).