“… but I won’t do that,” of course, the line of the insufferably catchy tune ends. There are things that a loving heart is just unable to do — have you ever noticed the similarities between Lohengrin and Orfeo ed Euridice in that respect?
Both are dealing with love that is put at stake. A higher being or goal enforces a vow on one of the lovers. If it is broken, the lovers are separated. And — both couples are bound to fail.
In Orpheus’ case the vow is: He mustn’t turn around, no matter how much he wants to, when he is guiding up Euridice from the realm of the dead. He agrees, but it gets more complicated than it looked at first glance: In the myth, he cannot hear her footsteps any more, and gets his doubts that get bigger with every step of his, whether she will ever be truly alive again, or if she follows at all; mixed with the dreadful curiosity what he might see if he turned.
In Gluck’s opera, it gets more personal, and is interactive which of course works better for an opera in Gluck’s style. (Surely Britten, the Master of Monologues would have enjoyed the myth staying just like it is.) So at Gluck, Euridice gets her doubts, and pleads Orpheus to look at her, which of course he mustn’t. He cannot explain it unless he broke the vow, so he must render the impression that he is a heartless bastard. She pleas, and begs, and is about to not come and join him as she doubts his love in total. So Orpheus has the choice to turn, and to see her once more at least, or never see her again. The choice is kind of obvious.
Che fiero momento
In Gluck’s case, Zeus has mercy, finally, and the lovers are re-united after all.
Lohengrin has many similarities to Orpheo, who descends into the depths. Well, what could be more dire than the middle ages in Germany. He offers Elsa salvation, somehow; which means at that time: Not only restoring her honor via this duel of which the outcome is seen as a verdict directly from God; it also means: an ordered life, and marriage. He marries her and resigns from his quest for a while. The only vow Elsa had to give (apart from the marital one) was: She must never ask whom exactly he is or where he comes from.
She asks, not once, three times, and thus makes it final. She gets to know it, and at the same time their marriage is obsolete – Lohengrin leaves, revealed as not truly belonging to this world.
You can neither be angry with Elsa nor with Orfeo – some vows are just meant to be broken. It is the final proof of their love, even if it means losing it forever.
Another similarity: Both, Lohengrin and Orpheo undertake a journey, and walk a path the others are unable to follow.
Gluck tries to stress the difference between the mortal word and the one beyond in his music. After the “Che fiero momento,” which shows a couple in real life and is Gluck in his normal state, here a piece describing the un-real world for comparison.
Welch Reiner Himmel – Che puro ciel
To understand Lohengrin and the world he comes from, here a piece from Parsifal instead. Parsifal, as we all do know — at the latest after the “Gralserzählung” — is Lohengrins father.
In Wagner’s Parsifal, there is a scene called “transformation music” “Verwandlungsmusik” . It explains the otherworldliness of the knights of the grail and their quest better than words ever could.
(At about 4:50 the bells start; If you can, do go to Bayreuth for Parsifal. Those “Gralsglocken” were exclusively made for Bayreuth after Wagner’s specifications, and are one of the best things about the Festspielhaus.)
Wagner was fascinated with Indian music when he wrote Parsifal. This ever repeated bass line, almost a drone (what in German is a Bordun) is a strong reminder to that.
Wonderful Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Allahrakha Khan
Notice the bass – if you are fond of Indian music, at least a little, you cannot un-hear the similarities to Parsifal. At 9:30 you have a good look at the lady who plays the drone-like bass. When I’ve seen Ali Akbar Khan live, a guy was playing it, and he looked like completely, let’s say, from out of this world, with a truly transfigured smile. I will never forget the concert.
So, excuse my digression – This world (the sanctuary of the holy grail, a dove descending every year etc, maybe with Ravi Shankar accepted to the order as well) has to conflict with the dreary Middle Ages everyday world Elsa belongs to. It is not in Lohengrin’s power to ever truly explain it to the people; they will never understand.
This is the Gralserzählung. I picked this version because the choir in the end is not chopped off. Just notice from 5:40 onwards the people’s reaction.
“Der König, die Männer und Frauen
Hör’ ich so seine höchste Art bewähren,
entbrennt mein Aug’ in heil’gen Wonnezähren.”
which roughly translates to
The king, the men and women
“When I hear him prove to be sublime
my eye burns with holy tears of joy.”
Yet, the translation cannot really transport it – The lines as well as the music are very Bach-ian at those specific bars, I find.
“Können Tränen meiner Wangen” — “Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” – “Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not”... There are so many Bach pieces woven around the subject of tears (“Tränen” in German, or the old word “Zähren”) that those two lines could as well be taken from an oratorio by Mr. Bach, not only for their choice of words. The music underlines it; at least in my perception.
Wagner obviously adored Bach, or he wouldn’t have snatched his opening bars for Tristan — and so one of the main motives — from the Goldberg Variationen.
This small choir, more than anything else, shows the people for once concerned with otherworldly matters, and that they too are able to get a glimpse of what more there is than their everyday concerns.
Still, the mysticism of the grail, and Lohengrin’s devotion for the quest, those people will never truly fathom. The music makes it clearer than everything else.
At 6:30 in this recording, at Elsa’s “Mir schwankt der Boden,” (“I feel the ground swaying…”) the moment is over to never come back again.
That in one case, Orpheus, a man, is failing, in the other a woman, only highlights that it is a matter beyond gender roles. Some things you just cannot do for love.