Led by Elsa, the radiant bride, a wedding procession enters, singing a heavenly chorale. As the melody, rising like incense, mounts to its trumpeted peak, she reaches the doors of the holy minster‹but it is not the bridegroom who steps forward.
The last time we saw Ortrud, she was a penitent, kneeling at Elsa's feet. If her words made us apprehensive, the music of her conversion stilled our fears. Now she is herself again, dauntless and vengeful‹the most striking figure on the stage. How dare Elsa, she cries, Elsa who cannot even name her bridegroom, dare to pull rank on her, the last descendant of the ancient pagan ruling house‹wife, moreover, of Friedrich of Telramund, a true and worthy knight? (Well, everyone can name him, at any rate‹unlike Elsa's magical consort.) Elsa's misery, the crowd's confusion, Ortrud's boldness and her (at present) unanswerable accusations stretch the tension to a thread.
From the legend on which Wagner based his opera, he took the scene of the nameless knight rescuing the innocent maiden‹his Act I‹but he passed over the sequel: they were married a year and a day, and then she asked the forbidden question, or (in one variation) they were married for seven years, and blessed with several children, and then one day another duchess made a slighting remark about the lady with a husband from nowhere‹or perhaps she sneered at the idea of any woman who could not learn her husband's secrets.
In some versions, she knows his name all right‹it is Lohengrin, if I'm not giving too much away‹but nothing of his lineage or where he came from. In a society obsessed with hereditary caste, this meant a great deal. A Nobody might be Anybody. It has been suggested that the story was inserted into the family tree of the Counts of Bouillon to cover up a misalliance‹and as it was Godfrey of Bouillon who led the First Crusade to conquer Jerusalem, this became a matter for myth.
In the legend, the overheard sneer is followed by the asking of the forbidden question, Wagner's Act III, scene 1, the revelation of the husband's identity (scene 2), and his inexorable departure. This sequence presented the stagewise Wagner with a problem: how to make Elsa's gathering anxiety palpable, how to make it dramatically public. There had to be stageable events and musical enhancement of those events, to get us from point A (the joyous betrothal) to point B (the violation of troth) in a way that an audience could feel as well as follow. But his sources did not provide such events.
To keep the action taut, Wagner boiled the story down from several years of marriage, or that fairy tale standby, a year and a day (which the fairy tales derived from the terms of the standard feudal contract), to three days and two nights, the period of his opera. But this undercuts our sympathy for Elsa: however saintly she may be, if she can't keep her mouth shut for 48 hours for the man to whom she owes her life, she's a flibbertigibbet. It doesn't make sense, even by the broad standards of fairy tale opera librettos.
Wagner's solution was to invent a new character: Ortrud. The lady who sneered at Elsa in the fable has become the witch responsible for the symbol at the opera's heart, the mysterious magic swan; she is even a priestess of the Old Gods, whose presence in Wagner's worldview was just coming into focus, and therefore her skullduggery is not based on ignoble envy, but is defiance tossed in the teeth of the new world-ruling religion. She is horrible, but magnificently so. Sagas have been written about such women, and it is in the sagas, which he was then reading avidly, that Wagner found his model.
The motif of the lover forbidden to ask, to look, to know some secret thing‹and unable to resist this prohibition‹is found in countless cultures; the doubtful partner being of either sex. There is the woman forbidden to open a certain door in her husband's house that we know as the Bluebeard legend. (The Arabian Nights tells a similar tale, reversing the sexes.) There is the knight who weds the river spirit Melusine, but may not look at her on Saturday afternoons‹so he peeks through the keyhole to behold a monster, half-woman, half-fish! Psyche, forbidden to see the husband who visits her each night, lights a lamp at the suggestion of her jealous sisters, and finds the beautiful god of love in her bed‹where he doesn't stay very long. Orpheus may have his dead wife back from the gods if he shows faith in them by returning to the world without looking back. But it's a long road, and a spirit makes no sound; in the end he cannot quite believe she is there‹and turns‹and she vanishes forever. Semele, in a myth Wagner studied while he was composing Lohengrin, demanded that Zeus prove his love by appearing to her in full godly panoply‹whereupon she burned right up. In Goldoni's Donna Serpente, a mortal king vows fidelity to his fairy bride, no matter what horrors he may see‹but curses her when she murders their children, only to learn that the scene was a test and an illusion. That fable became Die Feen, the first opera by the 20-year-old Richard Wagner, no less, though neither its elaborate magical effects nor its imitation-Weber score ever made it popular.
The theme of all these legends is that male and female come from such different worlds (if not quite Mars and Venus), such different upbringings and attitudes, dictated by custom or biology, that there is something magical and unlikely about their getting together at all. They find it difficult to trust or understand each other. Wagner discovered something like this at age 23, when he married Minna Planer, whom he had idealized, only to be bored by her determination to keep house economically and wonder why he couldn't hold a job. (Exhausted by his betrayals, she left him; yet she admitted that the music of Lohengrin made her forgive everything‹but only while she was attending a performance.)
The tempter figure in these dispatches from the war between the sexes seldom gets good press. Although she owes something of her subtle malice and hysterical end to the devious Eglantine in Weber's Euryanthe, nothing in Wagner's sources prepares us for the dynamic power of Ortrud, a role that dramatic sopranos and mezzos treasure‹it gives them so much to do, such contrary personalities to display, and the opportunity to defy kings, armies, God himself. (Many an Elsa graduates to Ortrud, as her voice and stagecraft deepen and mature. Few Ortruds go the other route.)
Wagner seems to have begun with the church door confrontation that is the visual (and audible) climax of his Act II, and to have constructed Ortrud's personality backwards from that moment: what sort of woman would do the wild things Ortrud does? She must be highborn to tangle with such company, and her morals are not the sentimental ones that Wagner's bland Christians profess; too, she evidently knows things no one else knows about the nameless knight and the swan he rode in on. She is therefore a witch and a pagan priestess (you can almost hear Wagner's cackle when he came up with that element), and this gives her curdled view of Christendom a certain justification. Nor does she run for cover when the game is up‹she defies an empire and its deity to punish her, unafraid of their certain victory. She takes her punishment like a hero out of a saga. It should come as no surprise, then, that Ortrud's situation, and the opera's climax, the scene at the church door, were not Wagner's invention at all.
In the medieval Nibelungenlied, which Wagner had recently read, Siegfried, lord of the Nibelungs, uses a cap of invisibility to aid Gunther to win the athletic Brünnhilde, and uses it again to help Gunther consummate the marriage. Siegfried's reward is Gunther's lovely sister, Kriemhild, but when Brünnhilde demands precedence at the church door as the wife of the greatest of heroes, Kriemhild retorts that all Gunther's deeds were really Siegfried's‹and she has the ring Siegfried took from Brünnhilde on the wedding night to prove it. Brünnhilde then orders Gunther to murder the man who tricked her. (In Wagner's other great source for the Ring, Volsunga Saga, whose pre-Christian characters do not go to church, the quarrel is over which lady, Brynhild or Gudrun, will bathe upstream of the other, but the deceptions and the results are much the same; the two epics flowered from a single root.) Unfortunately for Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, Wagner felt he could not reuse the situation once it was well known from his Lohengrin, and she became little more than a walk-on in an opera drawn from sagas in which she had been a major figure.
In Lohengrin, the incident becomes the pivot of the opera. Music, theater, and personality come into blazing conflict before the doors of the minster, riveting and unsettling us, preparing us for the tests and betrayals to come. We wait, breathless, for the resolution that the canny Wagner keeps close to his chest for most of another act. We have traveled from drama of redemption to conflict of will and faith, and only when faith is corrupted and the will is broken can the drama of redemption be renewed. The conflict at the church door that once symbolized the hypocrisies and egotisms that can bring down civilizations now stands for the individual's soul, torn between natural doubt and desperate faith. The ingenious transfer solved Wagner's plot problem and carried his Lohengrin to a popularity that was long unmatched among his works because he made use of all the elements at his command‹music, drama, symbol, spectacle, character‹weaving them at once into an unprecedentedly striking unity.