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With Hungary threatening East Francia after a nine-year truce, King Henry I is visiting all his duchies and counties to assemble a large army. He also travels to Brabant, where there is little enthusiasm for taking part in a campaign so far from home. To make matters worse, the king must settle a dispute about the Brabantian succession: Elsa, daughter of the deceased Duke of Brabant, has been accused by Friedrich of Telramund of having murdered her brother Gottfried. Telramund is supported in his accusation by his wife Ortrud, who comes from an old family that formerly ruled Brabant. Ortrud, who is in fact responsible for Gottfried's disappearance, plans not only to win back sovereignty over Brabant for herself and her family, but also to restore the old pagan religion and the associated customs and practices.
Elsa, who is challenged by King Henry to respond to the accusation, instead tells the assembled company of a dream in which a knight appeared to her, offering to defend her. When a trial by combat is proclaimed, the knight of whom Elsa dreamed actually appears in a small boat drawn by a swan. He offers Elsa protection and marriage, on the condition that she never ask his name and where he comes from. Elsa promises solemnly, and the unknown knight defeats Telramund in combat, proving Elsa's innocence.
Ortrud, who cannot reconcile herself to the outcome of the trial by combat, once again persuades Telramund of Elsa's supposed guilt. She also tries to sow doubt in Elsa's heart about the mysterious nature of the unknown knight.
When on the day of her wedding Elsa walks to the wedding altar with the knight, Ortrud disputes her precedence, since Elsa cannot even state the name of her future husband. For his part, Telramund accuses the knight of sorcery. Although Ortrud and Telramund are rebuffed, the seeds of doubt now begin to grow in Elsa's breast.
After the wedding, Elsa and her husband are led to the bridal chamber, where they face each other alone for the first time. Plagued by growing doubts, Elsa finally poses the forbidden question precisely at the moment when Telramund bursts into the room to kill the unknown knight. In the ensuing fight, Telramund is killed, but this victory is of no benefit to Elsa. When the soldiers gather the next morning to go off to battle alongside King Henry and led by the unknown knight whom all admire, he reveals his secret: he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, King of the Grail Knights. Since his identity is now known, he must leave Elsa and Brabant. When Ortrud triumphantly declares that she herself transformed Elsa's brother Gottfried into Lohengrin's swan, before he disappears Lohengrin breaks the spell with a prayer, thereby restoring Gottfried's human form.