April 11, 2017

Blue Balls Lohengrin

In the middle of one his stand-up acts, the American comedian Steven Wright - whose onstage persona is by turns morose, dejected, or depressed - suddenly took a deep breath and said very slowly, very darkly, and with a deep sigh: I am soooo excited...  That was funny and the joke took all of two seconds.

Recently I was reminded of Steven Wright by what I thought (for a moment) was a similar joke, except that it went on for more than twenty minutes and wasn't in the least funny.  The joke in question was the Bridal Chamber Duet from Lohengrin conducted by Joseph Keilberth at the 1953 Bayreuth Festival (with Wolfgang Windgassen in the lead role).[1]  To say that Keiberth's tempo was sluggish would be a severe understatement.  It was comatose.  Had this been a piece of instrumental music, one could conceivable justify such a tempo as an exercise of 'artistic license', akin to Glenn Gould's catatonic recording of Siegfried's Idyll or Sviatoslav Richter's glacial performances of Schubert's piano sonatas. Alas, with opera musical decisions cannot be completely unmoored from the text [2]; and it is because of the text that Keilberth tempo struck me as being simply freakish.
     To explain: