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 conceivably 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:
As the distant bridal chorus fades away, Lohengrin's opening words to Elsa are

The sweet song fades; we are alone,
alone for the first time since we met.
(Das süsse Lied verhallt; wir sind allein,
zum erstenmal allein, seit wir uns sahn.)

These are the words of a young man who had just married an attractive young virgin.  You'd think this man and his wife would be at least moderately excited about the forthcoming 'conjugal affections', now that they are "cut off from the world" where "no eavesdropper shall hear the salutations of the heart." (Nun sollen wir der Welt entronnen sein, kein Lauscher darf des Herzens Grüssen nahn.)[3]  According to Keilberth, however, a bridal chamber has all the excitement of the waiting room at your local Department of Motor Vehicles office.
     Given the pricey tickets and the famously uncomfortable seats at the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus, I hope there was a long line of people outside Keilberth's dressing room after the performance, each waiting for his turn to kick the conductor in the nuts.

Aside from slightly raising my blood pressure, this unpleasant listening experience made me realize that countless other performances of the Bridal Chamber Duet that I've heard over the years, although sanely paced by comparison with Keilberth's, still do not suggest any kind of sexual excitement or urgency - as if Lohengrin and Elsa were a couple who had lived together long enough to explore every position in Kama Sutra before, at long last, deciding to tie the knot. Under the crushing weight of empirical evidence against me, I was ready to conclude that my yearning for a 'Blue Balls Lohengrin' tempo in this duet was only a sign of my fucked-up psyche.

But it wasn't. My tears of frustration turned into tears of joy when I came across the 1929 studio recording of (a substantial fragment of) this duet by the 28-year old Max Lorenz and the 32-year old Kaethe Heidesbach.[4]  By far the fastest performance I ever heard, its urgently pressing tempo suggested clothes being torn off and chairs being knocked over as the couple rushed toward the bed to take advantage of "being alone for the first time".  Lorenz's singing in this recording may not be very subtle, understandably so since at the time he was only in the third year of his career as a professional singer.  Still, the fast tempo along with his open, plangent top notes and his already evident penchant for impassioned phrasing made me believe for the first time that the most immediate outcome of Elsa's blunder was not the destruction of a marriage but the prevention of a much anticipated coitus.

1. Teldec Historic CD.

2. Of course the meaning and implications of a text, especially when it comes to opera, can be 'interpreted' with such arrogant stupidity as to justify any musical decision whatsoever, no matter how perverse.  In the case of Lohengrin, for example, I won't be surprised if some juvenile-minded retard among today's opera directors decides to transfer Lohengrin's 'love at first sight' from Elsa to Telramund.  In which case a lethargic and thoroughly de-sexualized performance of the Bridal Chamber Duet will be justified by the 'fact' that, for Lohengrin, the marriage was only one of convenience because his true sexual longings pointed in a completely different direction. Needless to add, Telramund's bursting into the bridal chamber with his sword drawn will become an attempted crime of passion motivated by jealousy and his rage at Lohengrin's betrayal.  And Lohengrin's vigilantly guarded secret - his "name and lineage" (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) - will become the secret of a deeply closeted gay knight.

3. That Lohengrin, as a story, is a fairy tale is no excuse for treating its lead characters as asexual zombies.  Long before Wagner's time this literary genre proved itself to be fully capable of accommodating allusions to sex (including kinky or even grotesque varieties) as well as rather graphic violence.

4. Max Lorenz: The Complete Electrola Recordings 1927 - 1942, Preiser CD.

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