In examining the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) at the War Memorial Opera House, I felt it necessary to focus primarily on the musical virtues of the overall execution, due primarily to the clear-headed guidance of Music Director Nicola Luisotti but also to the expert direction of the SFO Chorus by Ian Robertson. Today I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second experience as part of my Sunday matinee subscription series, and I remain as excited about the musicianship as ever. However, by revisiting the entire opera from the beginning with past exposure to the full journey of the narrative, I found myself thinking more about how Daniel Slater approached the staging.
In my last article I cited Slater’s “intimations of past Soviet authority” in his conception of the scenario, writing that he “set the opera in a world of military brutes and the plebeians victimized by that brutality.” I now realize that Slater’s vision was far more sophisticated, perhaps in response to addressing the considerable musical attention that Wagner gave to his choral resources. There are actually far more than two classes at play in Slater’s staging, which definitely goes way beyond the rather generic categories given by the score of nobles, bridesmaids, pages, and attendants. There are at least two military classes, suggesting that there is both an army and a secret police, the latter being run by Friedrich von Telramund. This suggests a closer fit to Nazi authoritarianism while not being altogether in opposition to Soviet domination. Then there is a clear division between plebian men and women and the suggestion that the bridesmaids are probably of a patrician class (primarily because their clothing is finer than that of the plebian women, who do not follow the bridal procession into the church).
That distinction between men and women is clearly significant, since Slater makes it a point to keep the women off the stage until Elsa makes her entrance. There is even the faint suggestion that, during the trial, any judgment on Elsa may be extrapolated to a judgment of the women of Brabant. This may just be a matter of the women choosing to see it that way; but that whole trial depends on the testimony of the head of the secret police, whose word clearly counts for more than Elsa’s because he is a male authority. (We later learn that all of his testimony was perjured.)
Elsa triumphs at the trial through the intervention of Lohengrin. Ultimately, Lohengrin is just another male authority, who can only testify, “Elsa is innocent because I say she is.” This conflict is resolved when he and Friedrich fight it out to determine who is telling the truth. Yes, I phrased this in a way that makes it sound a bit ridiculous; but what is interesting is that Lohengrin is defending a woman (albeit a patrician one), in spite of (because of?) the fact that she is of a different class.
I would thus suggest that this conception of Wagner’s opera has less to do with Soviet totalitarianism, setting its sights instead on the “founding father” philosophy of Karl Marx pertaining to class warfare. When we first encounter Lohengrin, he is defending a member of a class not his own. More importantly, however, is that, as victor, he then turns to the needs of King Henry the Fowler (Heinrich der Vogler) for an army to help defend against the invading Hungarians. While everyone is celebrating Elsa’s innocence and her betrothal, Lohengrin seems to be organizing a powerful army by bridging the gap between the plebian “regulars” and the more elite (i.e. noble) “officers.” As a result, by the time we get to the second scene of the third act, Henry has a well-disciplined army that is loaded for Hungarian bear. Lohengrin serves the King by serving as an effective class warrior, providing a ruler of disparate German tribes with a “new world order.”
Needless to say, this analogy only goes so far. When Lohengrin reveals his identity (basically to explain to the King why he will not lead this new army), we discover that he is a Knight of the Grail. In other words all of that class dissension that had weakened Brabant’s army has been healed by divine intervention. Furthermore, before leaving his new bride Elsa to return to the Grail (forever), Lohengrin’s final act is to break the spell that has held the child heir to the throne, Gottfried von Brabant, prisoner.
The boy can now assume the throne. He takes the sword from the Herald and almost drops it. Nevertheless, he manages to raise the sword to hold it vertically in front of his face. The message here seems to be that the boy’s spirit is willing, but his flesh is definitely weak. With Lohengrin’s departure, Brabant is left without an effective leader. The old ways of class warfare will probably resume, and King Henry will still have to worry about the threat of the Hungarians.
Elsa is far from the only character left high and dry at the end of this opera.