By Jessica Duchen

Odette, Swan Lake’s enchanted swan princess, is still trying to break her spell

Monday, 26 June 2017

"My beloved swan..."

It's not that Jonas Kaufmann's voice was absolutely essential to the first update on the Meeting Odette page. You never need any excuse to listen to him (at least, I don't). But the German tenor's Lohengrin is legendary and, let's face it, Swan Lake would be nowhere without Wagner's swanny opera. Stories often sprout on the backs of older stories, and that ballet is no exception.

Here's a video of the final scene, filmed at La Scala, Milan, in 2012, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Kaufmann in the title role. I don't know what the production is doing, but our tenor is at his absolute peak.

Lohengrin has more than a few parallels with the story of Swan Lake - and therefore with Meeting Odette. The metamophosis of people into birds and vice-versa is an ancient mythical image, recurring in fairy tale after fairy tale, but here the similarity is closer still, and with good reason. 

According to some sources, Tchaikovsky evinced great fascination for King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose support transformed Wagner's career and who was obsessed with the man's operas, perhaps Lohengrin most of all. Like Tchaikovsky, Ludwig was tormented by his homosexuality in a world that could not accept that (especially in a monarch); if the Russian composer sensed some affinity with him, at a distance, that might be logical enough. 

The symbol of the swan was especially vital to Ludwig, who named his own fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein and filled it with swan images. Some people consider that Ludwig may have been a model, whether deliberately or not, for Prince Siegfried. The timing, in some ways, does stack up. Lohengrin was first performed in 1850; Neuschwanstein's foundation stone was laid in 1869; two years later, Tchaikovsky drafted some music for a fairy-tale ballet for the children within his own family to perform at home, provisionally entitled The Lake of SwansSwan Lake itself was composed around 1875 and premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. But in a terribly ironic twist, Ludwig II drowned in the Starnbergsee near Munich in 1886.

So how does Swan Lake copy Lohengrin

Who is this mysterious visitor? The knight who arrives in a boat drawn by the swan, seeking Elsa's hand in marriage, yet refusing to reveal his name even to her - and marries her on condition that she must never ask? The evil Ortrud plants the seeds of doubt in Elsa's mind and, of course, on the wedding night she demands to know who he is - and dooms them all. Because he's not a demon or an evil seducer. He is the most pure and wonderful being in all the world: Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, knight of the Holy Grail. Her doubt means destruction. But long ago Ortrud cast a spell on Gottfried, Elsa's brother, turning him into a swan - the swan that pulls Lohengrin's boat. Lohengrin's death - or more accurately, his progress into the castle of the Holy Grail, which is perhaps a euphemism for it - transforms his beloved swan back into the missing youth. Ortrud is destroyed, Elsa sinks lifeless (as operatic heroines do), Lohengrin passes away in one form or another, and a sacrifice redeems Gottfried.

At the close of Swan Lake, the deaths of Odette and Siegfried break the spell that enchants all the other swan girls (or so that story goes - our Odette has another way to explain that she's still very much alive and flying into Cygnford in a 21st century storm). 

What do Swan Lake and Lohengrin have in common? An enchanted swan; a force of evil and a force of good; a betrayal of trust, deep regret, a sacrifice, the destruction of evil, a redemption. There is even a vow of betrothal or marriage that is at once disrupted by a question over one partner's true identity. Coincidence? Not likely.

The swan is a wild creature, a symbol of instinct at its most beautiful yet also its most fierce. Would you go up to a swan and try to talk to it or touch it? I think most of us would hesitate. Do you trust it? You want to. But you don't dare. And neither does Elsa.

It's intriguing that despite the rather high number of deaths, neither Swan Lake nor Lohengrin feels entirely like a tragedy. Perhaps it's the human connections between people in these transformations that makes possible that exchange of energy: Siegfried and Odette give their lives, destroying Rothbart and freeing the swan girls. There's a bloodbath at the end of Lohengrin, but the innocent Gottfried resumes his human form, saved. Everyone is connected. All of us. We can't exist without one another. We forget this at our peril.

After Swan Lake's premiere, one critic commented that the music was too complex and "Wagnerian" for ballet.

Lohengrin, then, could be a vital underpinning to everything Swan Lake-ish. This book is no exception. And before anyone starts making facetious remarks about how I simply had to get Jonas Kaufmann into all this somehow, I'll say bye-bye for now and leave you to listen to the music, marvel at these slivers of beauty and, hopefully, become intrigued...

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