The following is a duet, a wildly popular duet, from Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin”.  As can happen in Wagner, the story is a bit complicated, and I have inserted a synopsis below so that you will know why each character says what she says.

 

Elizabeth Rethberg was a great, great lyric soprano during her good years.  Unfortunately, she fell prey to the lure of singing roles that were too heavy for her voice (outside of her Fach), and the voice suffered.  She left opera in 1942.

Kerstin Thorborg was one of the great mezzo-sopranos of her time.  Her brief bio gives some facts that I will not repeat here.

This duet was recorded close to the end of Rethberg’s career, but she is in very good voice, in no small part due the fact that Elsa was a good role for her.

https://youtu.be/pBx4Jr0S4JQ

ORTRUD

Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!
Bestraft die Schmach, die hier euch angetan!
Stärkt mich im Dienste eurer heil’gen Sache!
Vernichtet der Abtrünn’gen schnöden Wahn!
Wodan! Dich Starken rufe ich!
Freia! Erhabne, höre mich!
Segnet mir Trug und Heuchelei,
dass glücklich meine Rache sei!

ELSA
(noch ausserhalb)

Ortrud, wo bist du?
(Elsa und zwei Mägde mit Lichtern treten aus der unteren Tür der Kemenate auf)

ORTRUD
(sich demütigend vor Elsa niederwerfend)

Hier, zu deinen Füssen.
ELSA
(bei Ortruds Anblick
erschreckt zurücktretend)
Hilf Gott! So muss ich dich erblicken,
die ich in Stolz und Pracht nur sah!
Es will das Herze mir ersticken,
seh ich so niedrig dich mir nah!
Steh auf! O, spare mir dein Bitten!
Trugst du mir Hass, verzieh ich dir;
was du schon jetzt durch mich gelitten,
das, bitte ich, verzeih auch mir!

ORTRUD

O habe Dank für so viel Güte!

ELSA

Der morgen nun mein Gatte heisst,
anfleh ich sein liebreich Gemüte,
dass Friedrich auch er Gnad erweist.

ORTRUD

Du fesselst mich in Dankes Banden!

ELSA
(mit immer gesteigerter
heiterer Erregtheit)

In Früh’n lass mich bereit dich sehn, –
geschmückt mit prächtigen Gewanden
sollst du mit mir zum Münster gehn:
Dort harre ich des Helden mein,

(freudig stolz)
vor Gott sein Eh’gemahl zu sein.

ORTRUD

Wie kann ich solche Huld dir lohnen,
da machtlos ich und elend bin?
Soll ich in Gnaden bei dir wohnen,
stets bleibe ich die Bettlerin!

(immer näher zu Elsa tretend)

Nur eine Kraft ist mir gegeben,
sie raubte mir kein Machtgebot; –
durch sie vielleicht schütz ich dein Leben,
bewahr es vor der Reue Not!

ELSA
(unbefangen und freundlich)
Wie meinst du?

ORTRUD
(heftig)
Wohl, dass ich dich warne,

(sich mässigend)
zu blind nicht deinem Glück zu traun;
dass nicht ein Unheil dich umgarne,
lass mich für dich zur Zukunft schaun.

ELSA
(mit heimlichem Grauen)

Welch Unheil?

ORTRUD
(sehr geheimnisvoll)

Könntest du erfassen,
wie dessen Art so wundersam,
der nie dich möge so verlassen,
wie er durch Zauber zu dir kam!

ELSA
(von Grausen erfasst, wendet sich
unwillig ab; – voll Trauer und Mitleid
wendet sie sich dann wieder zu Ortrud)

Du Ärmste kannst wohl nie ermessen,
wie zweifellos ein Herze liebt?
Du hast wohl nie das Glück besessen,
das sich uns nur durch Glauben gibt?

(freundlich)

Kehr bei mir ein! Lass mich dich lehren,
wie süss die Wonne reinster Treu!
Lass zu dem Glauben dich bekehren:
Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu!

ORTRUD
(für sich)

Ha! Dieser Stolz, er soll mich lehren,
wie ich bekämpfe ihre Treu!
Gen ihn will ich die Waffen kehren,
durch ihren Hochmut werd ihr Reu!
(Ortrud, von Elsa geleitet, tritt mit heuchlerischem Zögern durch die kleine Pforte ein; die Mägde leuchten voran und schliessen, nachdem alle eingetreten. – Erstes Tagesgrauen)

FRIEDRICH
(tritt aus dem Hintergrunde vor)

So zieht das Unheil in dies Haus! –
Vollführe, Weib, was deine List ersonnen;
dein Werk zu hemmen fühl ich keine Macht!
Das Unheil hat mit meinem Fall begonnen, –
nun stürzet nach, die mich dahin gebracht!
Nur eines seh ich mahnend vor mir stehn:
Der Räuber meiner Ehre soll vergehn!

ORTRUD

Ye gods profaned! Help me now in my revenge!
Punish the ignominy that you have suffered here!
Strengthen me in the service of your holy cause!
Destroy the vile delusions of the apostate!
Woden! I call on you, O god of strength!
Freyja! Hear me, O exalted one!
Bless my deceit and hypocrisy,
that I may be successful in my revenge!

ELSA
(still offstage)

Ortrud, where are you?
(Elsa and two maids appear from the lower door of the Kemenate carrying lights)

ORTRUD
(humbly throwing herself before Elsa)

Here at you feet.
ELSA
(starting back in alarm
at the sight of Ortrud)
Dear God! Must I behold you thus,
you whom I had but seen in pride and splendour!
I choke with pity
to see you humbled thus before me!
Stand up! O spare me your supplications!
If you bore me hate, I forgive you;
and what you have already suffered through me
I beg you to forgive me in turn!

ORTRUD

I thank you for showing me such goodness!

ELSA

He who tomorrow is to be called my husband
I shall appeal to his loving nature,
that he may show mercy to Friedrich too.

ORTRUD

You bind me in fetters of gratitude!

ELSA

At down let me see you ready –
adorned in splendid garments
you shall accompany me to the minster:
there I shall await my knight,

to become his wife before God!

 

ORTRUD

How can I ever repay such kindness,
for I am powerless and wretched?
If you allowed me to live with you,
I would always be the beggar!

(drawing closer to Elsa)

I am left but one power,
no law robbed me of it;
through it I could perhaps protect you,
save you from the scourge of remorse!

ELSA

What do you mean?

ORTRUD

Let me warn you

not to put too blind a trust in your happiness;
lest you are ensnared by misfortune,
let me look into the future for you.

ELSA

What misfortune?

 

ORTRUD
Could you but comprehend
the wondrous origin of this man;
may he never leave you
as he came to you – by magic!

ELSA
(Seized with horror, she turns away
in indignation; then she turns back to Ortrud,
filled with sadness and compassion)

Piteous creature, can you not understand
how a heart can love without harbouring dubts?
Have you never known the happiness
that is given to us by faith alone?

Enter here with me! Let me teach you
to know the sweet bliss of true devotion!
Turn then to the belief that
there is a happiness without regret!

 

 

ORTRUD
(aside)

Ha! This pride shall help me
fight her devotion!
Against this I shall turn my weapons,
her arrogance will cause her to repent!
(Ortrud, led by Elsa, feigns hesitation as she enters the small door; the maids light the way and close the door once everybody is inside. – Dawn begins to break)

FRIEDRICH
(emerging from the background)

Thus misfortune enters this house!
Fulfil, O woman, what your cunning mind has devised;
I feel powerless to stop your work!
The misfortune began with my defeat,
now shall she fall who brought me to it!
Only one thing do I see before me, urging me on:
he who robbed me of my honor shall die!

Synopsis of Lohengrin

I don’t normally do this with pieces taken from opera, but as Ortrud is my favorite character in all of opera, I will do it this time. Ortrud is so deliciously evil.

ACT I

Antwerp, c. 900s. On the banks of the Scheldt, a Herald announces King Heinrich, who asks Count Telramund to explain why the Duchy of Brabant is torn by strife and disorder. Telramund accuses his ward, Elsa, of having murdered her brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant’s Christian dynasty. (Gottfried was actually enchanted by the evil Ortrud, whom Telramund has wed.) When Elsa is called to defend herself, she relates a dream of a knight in shining armor who will save her. The herald calls for the defender, but only when Elsa prays does the knight appear, magically drawn in a boat by a swan. He betroths himself to her on condition that she never ask his name or origin. Defeating Telramund in combat, the newcomer establishes the innocence of his bride.

ACT II

Before dawn in the castle courtyard, Ortrud and the lamenting Telramund swear vengeance. When Elsa appears serenely in a window, Ortrud attempts to sow distrust in the girl’s mind, preying on her curiosity, but Elsa innocently offers the scheming Ortrud friendship. Inside, while the victorious knight is proclaimed guardian of Brabant, the banned Telramund furtively enlists four noblemen to side with him against his newfound rival. At the cathedral entrance, Ortrud and Telramund attempt to stop the wedding — she by suggesting that the unknown knight is in fact an impostor, he by accusing Elsa’s bridegroom of sorcery. Though troubled by doubt, Elsa reiterates her faith in the knight before they enter the church, accompanied by King Heinrich.

ACT III

Alone in the bridal chamber, Elsa and her husband express their love until anxiety and uncertainty at last compel the bride to ask the groom who he is and whence he has come. Before he can reply, Telramund and his henchmen burst in. With a cry, Elsa hands the knight his sword, with which he kills Telramund. Ordering the nobles to bear the body to the king, he sadly tells Elsa he will meet her later to answer her questions.

Escorting Elsa and the bier to the Scheldt, the knight tells the king he cannot now lead the army against the Hungarian invaders. He explains that his home is the temple of the Holy Grail at distant Monsalvat, to which he must return; Parsifal is his father, and Lohengrin is his name. He bids farewell and turns to his magic swan. Now Ortrud rushes in, jubilant over Elsa’s betrayal of the man who could have broken the spell that transformed her brother into a swan. But Lohengrin’s prayers bring forth Gottfried in place of his vanished swan, and after naming the boy ruler of Brabant, Lohengrin disappears, led by the dove of the Grail. Ortrud perishes, and Elsa, calling for her lost husband, falls lifeless to the ground.

Elizabeth Rethberg

Rethberg was born in Schwarzenberg (Saxony). Her parents, whose surname was Sättler, were good amateur musicians, and, as was so often the case in those days, there was always music in the home. She studied first the piano and she reputed to have sung the Winterreise cycle at the age of seven! In 1912 she enrolled with the Dresden Conservatory as a piano student first (she was so talented that she originally planned to become a concert pianist). Eventually, her vocal coach, Otto Watrin, persuaded her otherwise. In 1915, at the age of twenty-one, she made her debut at the Dresdener Hofoper as Arsena in Zigeunerbaron. Her exceptional musicality and her ability to learn new rôles rapidly, enabled her to build up a considerable repertoire. By the time she left Dresden in 1922, her repertory included more than 100 rôles! In 1923 she and her teacher Otto Watrin travelled to New York and headed straight away for the Met, where an Aida rehearsal was underway. Still in her travelling clothes, she auditioned for Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. She remained on the roster of the Met for the next twenty seasons. She appeared as Aida, Desdemona, Leonora in La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore, Santuzza, but also Donna Anna, Sieglinde, Agathe, Pamina, Elsa and Rachel in La Juive. She was never much of an actress. To some extent she compensated with her voice. Toscanini compared her voice to a finely played Stradivarius. The “Guild of Singing Teachers of America” had voted hers the most perfect voice in the world (1928). She frequently returned to Dresden where special “Rethberg weeks” were organized. She also sang at the Salzburg Festival in several Mozart rôles. In the late 1930’s the decline of her voice accelerated (it is documented on the late live recordings), and in 1942 was brought up short in the face of her failure in a thoroughly misguided attempt to sing the Siegfried Brünnhilde. She retired, non too gracefully, that year

Elisabeth Rethberg was a “singer’s singer.” She is a master of perfect legato singing and of a wonderful messa di voce. Her head register is a miracle, and her impeccable phrasing shows her as a tasteful musician. Despite a rather light and “not Italian-like” voice, she was an outstanding singer for the Italian repertoire. Rethberg feels through the music and the words, but she never imposes too much emotion on them! From 1934 there were limitations. The famous critic Herman Klein had warned ten years before that she did not have the voice for Aida (“a lovely organ, skilfully managed”, but “too light”). However, she took over heavy roles as Rachel in La Juive and (1930) and the danger was probably not clearly audible then. But by the mid-1930s it was (and in 1934 she was only 40 years old!). In the late 1930s the decline accelerated and she retired, none too gracefully, that year.
Many of Elisabeth Rethberg’s records belong to the most beautiful soprano treasures, above all, her splendid legacy of recordings she made from 1921 to 1934.

Kerstin Thorborg

Thorborg was born 1896 in Venjan, studied singing in Stockholm and made her three obligatory debuts at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1923 as Lola, in 1924 as Ortrud and in 1925 as Amneris. After six years in Stockholm she appeared at the Nürnberg opera during two seasons. Bruno Walter engaged her 1932 to the Städtische Oper in Berlin (Deutsche Oper Berlin). Leaving Berlin in hatred of the Nazis she succeeded Gertrude Rünger at the Vienna State Opera, making her debut there in 1935 as Amneris opposite tenor darling Alfred Piccaver. She gained great success, particularly as Brangäne. Bruno Walter became one of her most important mentors. She was enhanced by a splendid stage appearance and was a superb actor, almost in constant training by her husband, the director and pianist Gustaf Bergman, also a former professional singer himself. She appeared in numerous roles such as Dalila, Venus, Kundry, Fricka, Erda, Waltraute and Magdalena. Her Italian repertoire included roles such as Amneris, Ulrica and Azucena. Under Bruno Walter she sang the title role in Gluck’s Orpheus und Eurydike. In 1936 with Walter she made gramophone history in the first ever recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde – still today regarded as one of the best. She also enjoyed great success as Eudossia in Respighi’s La Fiamma. She was most highly estimated by many great conductors, such as Georg Szell, Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, Felix Weingartner, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Victor de Sabata. In 1938, when the Nazis annexed Austria, she broke her contract and left for the USA. There she had made her debut already in 1936 at the Met. She stayed with this company until 1950, where she became one of the most successful mezzos, performing some three hundred nights during twelve seasons. She added Marina, Klytaimnestra, Herodias and Octavian (opposite Lotte Lehmann and Emanuel List) to her repertoire. After her career she settled in Hedemora (200 kms Northwest of Stockholm) with her husband, who unfortunately died after a few years, in 1952. In 1935 they had bought a house in her native landscape and for her it was natural to settle there. She was quite a shy person and did not want any pupils.