Chelsea Opera Group Exhumes a Wagner Rarity With Mixed Results

19/03/2013

 Wagner, Die Feen:Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group, Dominic Wheeler (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 17.3.2013. (JPr)

Opera in three acts by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Libretto by the composer after Carlo Gozzi’s La donna serpente
First performed in Munich on 29 June 1888

Cast:
Ada – Kirstin Sharpin
Arindal – David Danholt
Lora – Elisabeth Meister
Gunther – Andrew Rees
Morald – Mark Stone
Zemina – Eva Ganizate
Farzana – Emma Carrington

In Wagner’s bicentenary year most of the concentration is on the so-called ‘Bayreuth canon’ of his operas from Der fliegende Holländer onwards. There will be occasional performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi but they will be few and far between. Why is this, when many of the ‘immature’ works by far less important composers appear more often on the world’s opera stages? This also happened during the recent anniversary years for Mahler – where was his Die drei Pintos, his completion of the Weber opera? We could hear numerous performances of his Fifth Symphony for instance, but his only attempt at an opera was nowhere to be heard.

As Andrew Porter’s illuminating programme note debated: ‘The early works of great composers can prove well worth hearing … Die Feen, Wagner’s first completed opera, composed in 1833 by a 20-year-old musician who was chorus-master in Würzburg … went unstaged until 1888, five years after Wagner’s death. The following year when Bernard Shaw heard the overture at an LSO concert, and called it the work of “no crude amateur”, but displaying “youthful grace and fancy as well as earnestness”.’ It seems to have had a strong influence on a young Richard Strauss, who was the third-conductor at Die Feen’s Munich première, and his own subsequent Die Frau ohne Schatten because as Porter writes: ‘A synopsis of either Die Feen or Die Frau could begin: “While out hunting one day, our hero pursued a hind, which turned into a beautiful woman. She became his wife. But now the time comes when she must choose whether to embrace mortality and remain with the husband she loves, or return to her supernatural kingdom.” ’ Unlike Die Frau Wagner has his heroine, Ada, turned to stone and it is the ‘hero’, Arindal, who releases her from her curse.

It is possible to spot many plot and musical premonitions to Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, especially, amongst Wagner’s later compositions. However in Arindal’s Act III trials involving Earth Spirits and Metal Men with references in the libretto to ‘the uninitiated’ and ‘innermost sanctuary’, as well as a magical lyre and the constant cajoling of two fairies (rather than three ladies) we have more of an homage to Mozart’s Magic Flute, I believe. Beethoven is also never too far away as Lora, Arindal’s sister, rallies her people (in the very convoluted plot) with Leonora-like zealotry at the start of Act II. And of course Weber’s Die Freischütz comes to mind, especially with all the supernatural goings-on later in the act that is preceded by Ada’s lengthy Agathe-like aria. Undoubtedly, there is still sufficient musical invention even at such an early age (Wagner was only 20) to suggest that Die Feen is worthy of more opportunities to be heard.

So many congratulations to Chelsea Opera Group for exhuming Der Feen and giving aged Wagnerians like myself an opportunity to experience it for the first time. We had about three hours of music with only one substantial cut – what was described as an Act II ‘buffo duet’ between two of the more minor characters. I was following the libretto that is apparently printed in a commonly-used vocal score and the remaining cuts seemed insubstantial and often without apparent genuine reason. So though not a complete Die Feen, at least it had been abridged reasonably sensitively and most of what Wagner intended could still be heard.

However, it was not one of Chelsea Opera Group’s greatest evenings though I admire their good intentions. I have seen some online debate that the Die Feen scores which the soloists and musicians received rather late were somewhat unhelpful with important matters such as dynamics and cues. However as this concert had been planned, I suspect, years in advance, shouldn’t the organisers have ensured that appropriate orchestral parts and vocal material would be available before going ahead and announcing the project? The orchestra and chorus have sounded more professional in the past and, regardless of the reason, it was clear that David Danholt (Arindal) was musically insecure the whole evening; he missed at least a couple of entries in Act I with one resulting in the conductor valiantly stopping the performance and then repeating some music after turning to the audience to say they could all do it better. Actually, I think sometimes it is best to press on and hope people will not notice – and in my experience that is often the case! Otherwise, it suggests there has not been enough rehearsal – and we are perhaps entitled to think, without further information, why that was, given how far in advance this concert had been announced. I don’t think Dominic Wheeler had any real opportunity to interpret the music and – in the circumstances – it was the best he could do to keep it all together and after the Act I debacle he did just that.

The singing was therefore a mix of the good, the bad … and the ugly – a messenger sung by a chorus member who will not be named. I absolutely adored (a word I rarely use in a review) the two fairies, Farzana and Zemina, they obvious had completely rehearsed and were wonderful. As Farzana, Emma Carrington’s facial expressions revealed the full gamut of her character’s emotions and hers was a totally engaging performance. Lora was sung with great joy and abandon by the increasingly impressive Elisabeth Meister who enhanced even further her burgeoning reputation. Her soprano has a bright sound and fearsome attack and – I hope she will not mind me saying – she just needs to get more freedom to her highest notes to become the ‘real Straussian or Wagnerian deal’. That she also has a good nature was evident from her encouragement and applause for her fellow soprano, Kirstin Sharpin, after Ada’s Act II aria. Ms Sharpin, herself, is not yet as accomplished as Elisabeth Meister but has lots of potential and her singing grew in confidence and radiance as the opera progressed. Andrew Slater brought clarity of diction and an authoritative tone to the role of Gernot, Arindal’s squire. Two courtiers, Morald and Gunther, were well characterised by Mark Stone and Andrew Rees and Piotr Lempa portentously intoned as the voice of the magician Groma and later as the Fairy King. David Danholt’s tenor was sorely tested throughout but did improve after Act I, but just as he was becoming more than acceptable his stamina deserted him during his pivotal final moments when singing the song that rescues his wife. For the conductor ‘The show must go on’ is one maxim – another appropriate here for any singer can be ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’!

Jim Pritchard

For details of future Chelsea Opera Group performances visit http://www.chelseaoperagroup.org.uk/.

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