King Henry the Fowler has arrived in Brabant where he has assembled the German tribes in order to expel the marauding Hungarians from his dominions. He also needs to settle a dispute involving the disappearance of the child-Duke Gottfried of Brabant. The Duke’s guardian, Count Friedrich von Telramund, has accused the Duke’s sister, Elsa, of murdering her brother in order to become the Duchess of Brabant. He calls upon the King to punish Elsa and to make him, Telramund, the new Duke of Brabant, since he is the next of kin to the late Duke.
The King calls for Elsa to answer Telramund’s accusation. She enters, surrounded by her attendants. She does not answer to the King’s inquiries, only lamenting her brother’s fate. The King declares that he cannot resolve the matter and defers it to God’s judgment through ordeal by combat. Telramund, a strong and seasoned warrior, agrees enthusiastically. When the King asks Elsa who shall be her champion, Elsa describes a knight she has beheld in her dreams (Narrative: “Alone in dark days”).
Twice the Herald sounds the horn in summons, without response. Elsa sinks to her knees and prays to God. A boat drawn by a swan appears on the river and in it stands a knight in shining armour. He disembarks, dismisses the swan, respectfully greets the king, and asks Elsa if she will have him as her champion, and marry him. Elsa kneels in front of him and places her honour in his keeping. He asks but one thing in return for his service: she is never to ask him his name or where he has come from. Elsa agrees to this.
Telramund’s people advise him to withdraw because he cannot prevail against the Knight’s powers, but he proudly refuses and the combat area is prepared. The company prays to God (“Herr und Gott”) for victory for the one whose cause is just. Ortrud does not join the prayer, but privately expresses confidence that Telramund will win. The combat commences. The unknown knight defeats Telramund but spares his life. Taking Elsa by the hand, he declares her innocent. The crowd exits, cheering and celebrating.
Night in the courtyard outside the cathedral
Telramund and Ortrud, banished, listen unhappily to the distant party-music. Ortrud reveals that she is a pagan witch (daughter of Radbod Duke of Frisia), and tries to revive Telramund’s courage, assuring him that her people (and he) are destined to rule the kingdom again. She plots to induce Elsa to violate the mysterious knight’s only condition.
When Elsa appears on the balcony in the twilight before dawn she hears Ortrud lamenting and pities her. While Elsa descends to open the castle door, Ortrud prays to her pagan gods, Wodan and Freia, for malice, guile, and cunning, in order to deceive Elsa and restore pagan rule to the region. When Elsa appears, Ortrud warns her that since she knows nothing about her rescuer, he could leave her any time, as suddenly as he came, but Elsa is sure of the virtues of her rescuer.
The sun rises and the people assemble. The Herald announces that Telramund is now outlawed, and that anyone who follows Telramund is anoutlaw by the law of the land. In addition, he announces that the King has offered to make the unnamed knight the Duke of Brabant; however, the Knight has declined the title, and prefers to be known only as “Protector of Brabant”. The Herald further announces that the Knight will lead the people to glorious new conquests, and will celebrate the marriage of him and Elsa. Behind the crowd, four noblemen quietly express misgivings to each other because the Protector of Brabant has rescinded their privileges and is calling them to arms. Telramund appears, and, concealing himself from the crowd, draws these four knights aside and assures them that he will regain his position and stop the Knight, by accusing him of sorcery.
As Elsa and her attendants are about to enter the church, Ortrud, as part of her retinue, challenges Elsa to tell who her husband is, and to explain why anyone should follow him. The ensuing exchange is interrupted by the entrance of the King with the Knight. Elsa tells both of them that Ortrud was interrupting the ceremony. The Knight tells Ortrud to go back into the crowd, then takes Elsa to the wedding. The King leads at the front of the couple. When they are about to go inside the church (once more), Telramund enters. He pleads to the king that his defeat in combat was invalid because the Knight did not give his name (trial by combat traditionally being open only to established citizens), then accuses the Knight of sorcery. The Knight refuses to reveal his identity and claims that only one person in the world has the right to know his origin – his beloved Elsa and no other person. Elsa, though visibly shaken and uncertain, assures him of her confidence. King Henry refuses Telramund’s questioning of the Knight, and the nobles of Brabant and Saxony praise and give respect to the Knight. Elsa, not seeing her beloved, falls back to the crowd where Ortrud and Telramund take her and try to intimidate her, but the Knight forces both to leave the ceremony. The Knight consoles Elsa. Finally, the King, the Knight and Elsa, together with the men and women around, go forward. Elsa takes one last look at the banished Ortrud, then they enter the church.
Scene 1: The bridal chamber
Elsa and her new husband are ushered in with the well-known bridal chorus, and the couple express their love for each other. Ortrud’s words, however, are impressed upon Elsa, she laments that her name sounds so sweet in her husband’s lips but she cannot utter his name, afterwards she asks him to confide on her his name to keep it secret, when no one is around, but at all instances he refuses, finally, despite his warnings, she asks her husband the fatal questions. Before the Knight can answer, Telramund and his four recruits rush into the room in order to attack him. The knight defeats and kills Telramund. Then, he sorrowfully turns to Elsa and asks her to follow him to the king, to whom he will now reveal his mystery.
Scene 2: On the banks of the Scheldt (as in Act 1)
The troops arrive equipped for war. Telramund’s corpse is brought in, Elsa comes forward, then the Knight. He tells the King that Elsa has broken her promise and he discloses his identity by telling the story of the Holy Grail, on Monsalvat, and reveals himself as Lohengrin, Knight of the Holy Grail and son of King Parsifal sent to protect an unjustly accused woman. The rules of the Holy Grail determine that Knights of the Grail must remain anonymous, retiring from all human sight if their identity is revealed; so the time for his return has come.
As he sadly bids farewell to his beloved bride, the swan reappears. Lohengrin tells Elsa that if she had maintained her oath, she could have recovered her lost brother, and gives her his sword, horn and ring, for he is to become the future leader of Brabant. Then, when Lohengrin tries to get in the boat, Ortrud appears. She tells Elsa that the swan who drove Lohengrin to the bank was actually Gottfried, Elsa’s brother, on whom she put a curse by transforming him into a swan. The people consider Ortrud guilty of witchcraft. Lohengrin prays and the swan turns into another form, a young Gottfried. He elects him as the Duke of Brabant. Ortrud sinks as she sees Gottfried and her plans thwarted.
A dove descends from heaven and, taking the place of the swan at the head of the boat, leads Lohengrin to the castle of the Holy Grail. Elsa is stricken with grief and falls to the ground dead.
Notable arias and excerpts
- Act 1
- “Einsam in trüben Tage” (Elsa’s Narrative)
- Scene “Wenn ich im Kampfe für dich siege“
- Act 2
- “Durch dich musst’ ich verlieren” (Telramund)
- “Euch lüften, die mein Klagen” (Elsa)
- Scene 4 opening, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral”
- Act 3
- Bridal Chorus “Treulich geführt“
- “Das süsse Lied verhallt” (Love duet)
- “Höchstes Vertrau’n” (Lohengrin’s Declaration to Elsa)
- Entry of King Henry
- “In fernem Land” (Lohengrin’s Narration)
- “Mein lieber Schwan… O Elsa! Nur ein Jahr an deiner Seite” (Lohengrin’s Farewell)