[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 1:48 AM Eastern on 25 Sep. See below.]
We've never given the close attention to Wagner's three canonical operas (for none of which have we ever so much as glanced at a score) — Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin — that we've given Wagner's music-dramas (with the exception of Die Meistersinger which, while recognizing it as a masterpiece, we've never been able to "connect" with because entirely too sunny and diatonic a work for our tastes and temperament) and have for decades been mildly dismissive of all three calling them Wagner's practice pieces on his way to becoming Wagner. On our recently learning that Anna Netrebko is scheduled to sing the Lohengrin Elsa in Dresden in 2016 (with Thielemann on the podium), we were moved to again listen to the work which we haven't listened to for a great many years and on doing so were struck anew by its remarkable Act II Prelude and first scene which for the first time in Wagner's oeuvre give unmistakably clear intimation of the Wagner to be — specifically, the Wagner of the Ring (that Act II Prelude and first scene is almost a working draft of the Act II Prelude and first scene of Götterdämmerung) — and by a huge blunder by Wagner that, in a single stroke, turned Lohengrin into another German Romantic opera instead of the perfect operatic version of a tragic fairytale of the Hans Christian Andersen sort it could otherwise have been embodying all the profundity that lies at the heart of all great fairytales: Wagner had Lohengrin not only fall in love with Elsa, the woman he was sent to save, but actually marry her — a double-whammy blunder that shows a Wagner still a fair way off from becoming Wagner. So, why is it a huge blunder? Because it instantly transforms Lohengrin, a divinely charged and empowered personage, into an ordinary (if extraordinarily noble and brave) human being with all the presumptive foibles native to the species. More Wagnerian would it have been to have Elsa unrequitedly in love with Lohengrin and ultimately come to realize that such a love is tragically impossible of fulfillment or consummation and must of necessity be unrequited and rebuked and conclude with her dreams brought to an end by Lohengrin's ineluctable departure and return to Monsalvat and the Grail, that departure and return untimely brought about and hastened by her betrayal of her vow to never question Lohengrin as to his name, lineage, or from whence he came. That's the profound stuff of great fairytales. What the still-not-yet- Wagner Wagner gave us instead is but the sentimental stuff of conventional opera.
Update (1:48 AM Eastern on 25 Sep): We've received a number of eMails pointing out that Wagner intended the Lohengrin-Elsa falling in love thing to evoke the Zeus-Semele myth and that the Eros-Psyche myth is another parallel. We're perfectly aware of all this but maintain our above expressed opinion nevertheless. It's our position that Wagner's idea here was both ill-conceived and ill-executed as drama. Wagner set his Lohengrin tale against a real-world German-historical background and was even compulsively insistent on historical accuracy in the settings and costumes and then attempted to insinuate centrally that which belongs entirely to the fantastic world of myth and fairytale and, in our less than humble opinion, managed the merger quite clumsily. What he ended up with as consequence was neither fish nor fowl but a German Romantic opera with its supernatural component distorted and crudely integrated dramatically. As we've above suggested, Lohengrin is, after all, but a practice work by Wagner on his way to becoming Wagner.