THE PRODUCTION OF LOHENGRIN
(played in tenth century costumes for the first time at Bayreuth)
from The Sun (New York [N.Y.]), August 05, 1894, page 5, with the original illustrations of The Sun.
Bayreuth, July 21, 1804.- The Bayreuth Festspielaus, where, since its erection, enthusiasm has been domiciled, and approval has found eloquent expression in every tongue of the civilized globe, has seldom witnessed a scene of such unequivocal delight as followed the first act of "Lohengrin" yesterday afternoon. It was the first presentation of the work in the Bayreuth theatre, and expectations that demanded an interpretation worthy of the occasion and the place were not doomed to be disappointed. A triumph has been gained,and one, moreover, that embodies all that is cherished as most sacred in the doctrines of the Bayreuth school. The familiar work, that has been heard these many years the world over, and that is remembered by young and old through performances good, bad, and indifferent, had revealed itself in a new light that of the faithfulest adherence to its composer's intentions. Not without reason did Wagner all his life point out the difference between the old-fashioned opera and the new art form he created under the designation " music drama" - his teachings are peculiar to all who are interested in the questions of our time. Lohengrin, to be sure, has been given to the world by the master himself under the denomination of "romantic opera", and yet how essentially it is conceived and executed in the spirit of his later works the events of yesterday have in the most convincing manner demonstrated. In the light of this achievement the letter to Baron von Zigesar [sic, for Ferdinand von Ziegesar, Court Intendant at Weimar], which is to be found in the Wagner list correspondence, and refers to tho production of Lohengrin in Weimar, gains a new significance. Pointing out the intimate connection between the different parts of his work, and their close interdependence, he insists that it shall be given according to his intentions, with an equal amount of care bestowed on the histrionic and scenic side, as well as on the musical, or not at all. "Under other conditions," he concludes, "I confess I lay no value on the future of my work." And in its entirety Lohengrin has now been judged through its Bayreuth interpretation. The impression created (and that this , was a deep one cannot be too emphatically insisted upon) was not only a powerful one, but one that came by way of a revelation. Not even the critically discriminating mind could, after so overwhelming an effort as the close of the first act, stop to consider whether it was the impassioned music primarily that had carried the great audience off its feet or the admirable efforts of principals, chorus, and orchestra, or rather whether it was not, perhaps more than aught else, the stirring situation itself that follows the termination of the combat and the superb triumph of stage management, whereby the semblance of actuality had been accomplished with startling realism. The various factors working together, and developed to a point that approached perfection, had achieved this result; it was the triumph of combined, in contradistinction to individual effort. The links in the chain, to which Wagner so frequently compares his art, had not been separated or broken into disconnected parts, but riveted firml y had adhered together as a well-united whole. How true this is may perhaps best be deduced from the fact that at the last moment the chosen representative of the title rôle. Van Dyck, was taken ill, and a substituto had to be accepted in the person of Herr Girhaeuser [sic, for Emil Gerhauser], who had not been counted upon at all to perform Important or responsible work during the present festival. And yet, in spite of the fact that on an ordinary performance the substitution of one singer for one more famous inevitably casts a damper on everything and everybody, when the first disappointment upon becoming acquainted with the fact had passed. It is doubtful if any one, besides the personal friends of the popular belgian tenor, paused to regret or even to consider his absence from the cost. To pursue the simile of the Wagnerian chain further, it matters little, when once the links are firmly attached to one another, whether in certain portions they should not be as strong as talent and ability can make them.
And so it happens that to questions that would concern themselves with individual excellence, and would seek to determine whether, for instance, no such Lohengrin or Ortrud, no such stage setting, no such choral and orchestral interpretation had ever been known before, there may come the admission that, though in each print Bayreuth has been equalled or surpassed by other stages. It never has succeeded in the manner made evident yesterday.
To those who came expecting a feast for the eyes, a certain disappointment wan in store, for when It Is said that tho scenery and costumes were carried out with the strictest adherence to historical accuracy, their chief claim to attention will have been acknowledged. The sets for three acts offered little that was new, save inthe arrangement of the bridal chamber, which extends to the back of the stage, a large curtained bed forming the chief feature of an alcove in the centre, where it stands. The foliage and the sunlight strike one. perhaps as brighter on the banks of the Scheldt than they have ever appeared before, while their darkness in the courtyard during the scene between Ortrud and Telramund seems greater than one has been accustomed to. But these are trifling matters that only strike one because one is apt to bring special attention to all that appeals to the eye or ear In Bayreuth.
The restoration of the true historical period, i.e., the middle of the tenth century, has conditioned the style and material of the costumes, leaving comparatively little scope for variety. The greatest simplicity distinguishes the dresses of the chorus, which follow closely such models as are to lie found in Mone ("Teutsche Denkmaeler"), Herrad von Landsperg ('Hortus deliciarum"), or Louandre. and those familiar with these models are well aware that they offer little variety of color, shape, or design. Even the principals are on the whole less becomingly dressed than we are wont to see them, though the absolute fitness of their present garb cannot but appeal to a careful spectator.
When it comes to a consideration of the new stage business there is much that will commend itself for the future as authoritative, and again, not a little that is open to dispute. A veritable stroke of genius is tho handling of the choral masses in the thirst act, from the moment the approach of the swan is announced till the jubilant outburst of impassioned rejoicing that brings one of the must stirring scenes, not only in Wagner, but in the entire field of opera, to a termination. It is positively masterful the way each chorus member has been drilled and what a semblance of actuality is attained by the various evidences of wonder and excitement every person on the stage is made to express, Some rush to the banks of the shore, others hasten to bear the glad tidings to Elsa, others again stand ready to greet the glittering knight : a tumult of feeling is set loose in which one is carried away in spite of one's self. It is truly as if a very miracle were being accomplished before one's eyes, and that these remained dry in the case of but few among yesterday's audience is the best proof how deeeply moving the episode, was universally felt to be. Wonderfully effective likewise was the closing scene, when, the combat terminated, the chorus with loud rejoicings break great branches from the trees, and, waving these so that it would seem to realize a new Birnam cod, carry Elsa and Lohengrin in triumph from the stage. Here is the stone block on which Ortrud in the first act and Elsa in the last find a place, rather than the customary armchair that has done service in so many other performances. Thesetwo appearances of the swan in the distance before the final arrival of the full-grown knight is one more than the customary number, while Elsa's following of at least twenty maidens is expressive of similarly generous, intentions. One might be inclined to dispute the equity of the new order of things that causes the King to assign Elsa a seat by his side during the progress of the trial by combat, or the appearance of Ortrud at the very foot of the stairs in front of Elsa as the latter enters the cathedral at the close of tho second act. Admirable, on the other hand is the massing of the women on the palace steps at the back of the stage when Telramund appears to denounce Lohengrin before the King and his followers. Indeed, the life and movement of the entire second act was effective in the highest degree, as is also the beautiful feeling with which the familiar scene of the bridal is managed.
For the first time probably on any stage Elsa and Lohengrin during the long love duet do not leave the couch until the entrance of Telramund even the passage "Athmest Du nicht mit mir die suessten Dueften" which fairly invites a change of position, is delivered seated. However, such questions are essentially matters of taste, which are difficult conclusively to settle. Different is, however, the rule that has evidently prevailed to create the illusion that every one, from first to last, is interested in what is occurring on the stage. During Telramund's and Lohengrin's narrations not an eye but is fixed attentively on these central figures. Important and valuable as is such an another innovation that is to be hailed as a still greater stride in the right direction, and that is the manner in which gestures and movements are fitted with nicest accuracy to each musical phrase, action and music thus mutually illustrating one another with startling eloquence.
As the consequence of a performance carried out on the above lines it stands to reason that individual rôles impress one more in their relation to the work than as independent creations. And yet there is but one opinion here to-day as to the newest recruit to the Bayreuth forces: never has a more ideal Elsa been heard or seen on the German stage than Mme. Nordica. Admiration for her follows as a corollary to all that is saidiIn praise of Lohengrin. The conception of the character does not differ in the main from that which is known and accepted in America, and which makes of Elsa the embodiment of all that is gentle and maidenly. That the character appears very differently in the frame of the Bayreuth stage from what it seemed at the Metropolitan Opera House or Covent Harden stands to reason. Much has been acquired and learned during the course of incessant and lengthy rehearsal, and still more gained by the sympathetic surroundings in which it is now seen. In appearance alone Mme. Nordica marks a contrast with the buxom prime donne on whom German audiences have grown accustomed to look. Indeed, she seems so frail and delicate that one can readily imagine how the calamity that follows as a consequence of Elsa's disobeing Lohengrin's behest snaps her thread of life at the moment of his departure, and that, like Isolde, she at the fall of the curtain, breathes her last. Whether this be the true interpretation is perhaps open to dispute, as is also a not uninteresting tale that is vouched for on good authority, according to which Wagner is reported to have said that the accepted Elsa of tradition was not in accordance with his intentions, as he would wish rather the hysterical than the poetic side of the character accentuated. To this end it is related that he promised to so dramatic a singer as Materna to essay the part, and that she even went the length of having her costumes made therefor. If this be true, then Mme. Caron of the Paris Opera House comes nearest realizing his ideal, inasmuch as in her hands; Elsa interpreted the opening scenes as though she were an inspired seeress, while toward the end she almost reached tragic height. At no point of Mme. Nordica's embodiment are these even aimed at the lovable side of the part is most insisted upon and developed, with the happiest results. The portions of her rôle that have been restored by the uncut score lend additional significance to tho concluding scene, and for Bayreuth.,with its long entr'actes and its ideal method of presenting Wagner's works, Lohengrin, without the adventitious aid of the blue pencil, is enthusiastically to be commended, though it may not be so well suited to the purposes of other opera house.
Hand in hand with her success as an actress, Mme. Nordica scored a positive triumph by reason of her vocal art. If her voice was in superb condition, and the acoustic properties of the Festspielhaus are such that she was at no moment obliged unduly to force her tones. Wonderfully distinct and successful was her enunciation of the German text; it seemed incredible that she was not to the manner born, and that, indeed, her knowledge of German for the purposes of private life is very limited.
Without doubt Mme. Nordica's success of yesterday marks an important step in her career.
Of the other artists, none of whom has ever been heard In America, who are reckoned among the new comers, or beginners of the German stage, a few words of general commandation will suffice. Ernest an Dyck, the Bayreuth tenor par excellence, who had distinguilshed himself at the rehearsals, and whose Lohengrin has frequently been admired in Paris and London, was unfortunately taken ill at the last moment with a severe inflammation of the throat. The embarrassment was great, as his understudy was likewise ill and unable to replace him. Much credit is therefore due to Herr Gorhaeuser [sic, for Gerhäuser], a tenor from Carlsruhe, who undertook without rehearsal to assume the part and save the performance, deserving thus not only the gratitude both of management and public, but also a fair share of the plaudits that were so bounteously bestowed as the curtain closed on each act. The Ortrud Frl. Bremaa. an Englishwoman of German descent, and the Telramund of Herr Popolvici, a Roumanian, were both somewhat highly colored, but showed their interpreters posessed of unusually fine voices. As much can be said for the Herald of Herr Bachmann and the King of Herr Grengg, both of whom fully met the requiremants of their rôles.
Mottl's reading of the incomparable score is deserving of all praise. In the art of preparing and working up climaxes of overpowering grandeur no one is such a muster as he, and thus the prayer and finale of the first act, the great ensemble of the second, and the gathering of the clans in the third are specially to be singled out as examples of his most brilliant ability. A few passages were taken more broadly than one habitually hears them, and even these were rather phrases than any longer succession of bars. How well the covered orchestra is adapted to the score of Lohengrin as a whole, it would need the opinion of experts to determine, and even then there might possibly be as many for as against. That the brilliancy of many portions is lost is certain, though this is atoned for by other redeeming tonal qualities. The materlal of which the orchestra is composed comprises some of the finest musicians of Germany and Austria, none tho less it has irregularities in certain directions, the strings, on the whole, being superior to the wind. Of course this applies only when the severest standard of criticism is employed, but such, after all, is the only one available for Bayreuth.
On the 28th of August 1830, Lohengrin was performed for tho first time in Weimar, mainly through the instrumentality of Franz Liszt, since then it has made its way through out the civilized world, till now, after nearly fifty years, it may be regarded as the most popular opera of the present day. As far as the future is concerned, one would almost feel inclined to prophecy for it an immortal career, while fondly hoping it might never again be presented any where save according to the model that has been set at Bayreuth.
W. vos Sachs*.
W. vos Sachs*.
* William "Willy" von Sachs was an american music critic and journalist of Austrian descent (b. 30 May 1856 in New York). Sachs was the music critic of the Commercial Advertiser in New York, and he hosted a musical soiree for Tchaikovsky during his visit to the city in 1891. The composer described him as "a very likeable and refined gentleman" , noting also that "This refined little gentleman, who speaks French fluently, has excellent knowledge of music, and is very considerate to me, is perhaps the only person in New York whose company I do not find onerous, and even pleasant" .