WAGNER, R.: Lohengrin (Melchior, Varnay, Leinsdorf) (1942) (Naxos Historical: 8.110235-37)
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
The legends, which eventually resulted in the operasTannhauser and Lohengrin, came to the notice ofWagner while he was in Paris in 1841. In the summer of1845 the composer returned to the Lohengrin story,briefly told in Wolfram von Eschenbach's poemParzival, and in fuller detail in an anonymousthirteenth-century German poem entitled Lohengrin anda French epic Le Chevalier au Cygne. Having drafted aprose scenario for a possible opera after returning toDresden on 3rd August, Wagner then set aboutconstructing the poem, which he completed by27th November. By 1846 he began composition on thework, starting with the Third Act first, then the First,and then the Second (which was completed by30th July), finally finishing with the opening Preludefor the opera, the whole complete draft being finishedon 29th August. (He had realised from the beginningthat the middle act would prove the most problematic.)The work was finished in full score by 28th April 1848.
Six months later the composer conducted a concertperformance of the Finale of the First Act.
Lohengrin was the last opera in which the composercould bring himself to make use of the moreconventional operatic expression; the stage is alive withcrowded scenes and awkward-looking trumpet-players,the chorus contributes much onlooker's comment, andthere are occasional ensembles for solo voices. Theopera was conceived as a drama in historical termsbetween Christianity and Paganism. Lohengrinrepresents the former, Ortrud (Wagner's own creation)and her husband Telramund the latter. Heinrich is thehistorical Henry the Fowler, King of Saxony andchampion of German unity against the invadingHungarians. Elsa of Brabant is accused of the abductionand murder of her brother Gottfried, heir to the BrabantKingdom. Her defender, a mysterious Knight, arrives inthe swan-drawn boat, defeats her accuser Telramund,egged on by Ortrud, and claims Elsa as his bride. Shemust not ask him to reveal his identity. The villainousOrtrud is determined to find the name of Elsa's husbandand demands she ask the forbidden question. Havingslain Telramund in self-defence, the Knight announceshe is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, a Knight of theHoly Grail at Montsalvat in Spain. At the end the swan,which had been transformed by Ortrud's witchcraft, isrestored as Gottfried.
Wagner's part in the Dresden revolt of 1849obliged him to flee the Saxon state. Furthermore, theintended premi?â?¿re was removed from the schedule ofthe Court Opera. At the composer's request, Lohengrinwas first produced at the Court Theatre in Weimar on28th August 1850 under the direction of Liszt, whileWagner had taken refuge in Switzerland. The orchestracomprised 38 players, and the initial reception wasmuted, with the opera not taken up elsewhere. It waseventually given in Vienna in 1861, and later seen inLondon, Milan and St Petersburg. Thereafter it hasremained among the composer's most performedworks.
Lohengrin has been popular with film-makers since1902, the year when a three-minute silent sequence wasused in a black and white film. A fifty-minute silentGerman adaptation appeared in 1916 when live singersand orchestral forces were used to accompanyscreenings. In 1947 a more expanded Italian-languagefilm was directed by Max Calandri and ran for morethan a hundred minutes. It employed a cast of actorsmiming to a separate cast of singers for the soundtrack.
The r?â??le of Elsa is sung here by the Americansoprano, later mezzo-soprano, of Austrian andHungarian parentage, Astrid Varnay (b. 1918). Herfather was the Austrian singer Alexander Varnay (1889-1924) who later became stage manager at theStockholm and Oslo opera houses. Studying first withher mother, the coloratura Maria Yavor, and HermannWeigert, whom she married in 1944, she made anunheralded short notice debut without any rehearsal,replacing an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, as Sieglinde inDie Walk?â??re at the Metropolitan Opera in New York inDecember 1941. Six days later she replaced HelenTraubel as Br?â??nnhilde. She would continue to sing atthe Met until 1958, but returned again in 1974, giving158 performances in a total of 24 r?â??les over nineteenseasons. In May 1948 she first sang r?â??les in the Italianrepertory, including Aida, Gioconda and Tosca, inMexico City. Her European debut at Covent Gardenwas as Br?â??nnhilde in Siegfried in November 1948.
Varnay would return in 1951, 1958-59 and 1974, alsosinging Isolde. She appeared in the reopening season atBayreuth in 1951, continuing every year until 1968,singing the principal soprano r?â??les (and some mezzor?â??les from 1962). She also appeared in Florence (1951),Paris (1956) and Milan (1957). By the early 1960s shehad moved to the mezzo repertory. It was in the Straussand Wagner repertoire that she is best remembered butshe was much admired in Italian r?â??les. She was the mostsignificant Wagnerian dramatic soprano betweenFlagstad and Nilsson.
The title r?â??le is sung by the Danish-born but laternaturalised American Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973)Originally a baritone who studied at the Royal OperaSchool in Copenhagen, he made his official debut inCopenhagen in 1912. Six years later he essayed thetenor title r?â??le of Tannhauser before a further period ofstudy resulted in his noteworthy Covent Garden debutin 1924 as Siegmund in Die Walk?â??re. For the ensuingquarter century he was the foremost Wagner tenor of histime, with a career that extended throughout Europe(including Bayreuth and Berlin), North and SouthAmerica. He also sang heroic Italian (including Otello)and some French r?â??les. His untiring vocal stamina alliedto a robust physique was ideally suited to heroicWagnerian r?â??les. After leaving the stage in 1950 heappeared in a number of Hollywood films. At the age ofseventy he sang Siegmund in a broadcast concertperformance of the first act of Die Walk?â??re inCopenhagen. His many recordings reveal Melchior asthe outstanding Heldentenor of his era. He died inCalifornia.
The r?â??le of the evil and manipulative Ortrud istaken by the Swedish mezzo-soprano KerstinThorborg (1896-1970). Born in Venjan, she studied inStockholm, later making her debut there in 1924 asOrtrud with the city's opera company, where sheremained a member for six seasons in addition toappearing throughout her native country. Herinternational career began with her engagement asWaltraute in Gotterdammerung in Dresden in 1929,quickly followed by engagements in Nuremberg (1930-31), followed by Prague (1932-33), Berlin (1933-35),Vienna (1935-38), Salzburg (1935-37) and CoventGarden (1936-39). In 1936 she joined the Metropolitanin New York, first appearing as Fricka in Die Walk?â??reand remaining until 1950. In her thirteen seasons shesang 243 performances of some nineteen r?â??les. Herother American engagements included San Franciscoand Chicago. Generally regarded as the finestWagnerian mezzo of her time, Thorborg excelled asKundry in Parsifal, Ortrud, Brangane in Tristan andFricka in The Ring. She was also much admired asKlytemnestra in Elektra, Herodias in Salome, Delilah,and in the title r?â??le of Gluck's Orfeo. Her recordedlegacy includes a live version of Mahler's Das Lied vonder Erde under Bruno Walter in Vienna in 1936. Afterretirement she returned to her native Sweden, dyingthere at the age of 73.
As Telramund, the weak and put-upon husband ofOrtrud, we have the Hungarian baritone Alexander(born Sandor) Sved (1906-1979). Born in Budapestwhere he undertook his initial studies, he later went toItaly where he worked work with the distinguishedbaritones Marco Sammarco and Riccardo Stracciari.
Sved made his debut as Conte di Luna (Il Trovatore) inhis native city in 1928. He later appeared at theStaatsoper in Vienna (1936-39, 1950), La Scala, Milan(1938) and the Metropolitan in New York, where heremained