Wagner’s First Opera, Die Feen: Music, Suprisingly Good, Libretto, Not Suprisingly, Poor

R. Wagner’s Die Feen Soloists, Frankfurter Opern und Museumsorchester, Frankfurt Opera Chorus. Conductor: Sebastian Weigle. Alte Oper Frankfurt. 06.05.2011 (JMI)

Concert Version


Ada: Tamara Wilson
Arindal: Burkhard Fritz
Lora: Brenda Rae
Morald. Michael Nagy
Gernot: Thorsten Grümbel
Drolla: Christiane Karg
Gunther/Messenger: Simon Bode
Zemina: Anja Fidelia Ulrich
Farzana: Juanita Lascarro
Fairy King: Alfred Reiter
Herald: Sebastian Geyer
Groma: Simon Bailey

Final Bows. Credit: Wolfgang Runkel

Although Die Feen (“The fairies”) was the first opera Richard Wagner composed (back in 1833, when he was the choir director at Würzburg), it didnt have its premiere until after Wagner died,  in Munich in 1888. Since then this opera has been performed on only a few occasions, the last and better known one to have taken place two years ago at Paris Chatelet in a production by Emilio Sagi and conducted by Mark Minkowski. Just last year ago it premiered in the United States, in Los Angeles, performed by an amateur company. Some 5 years ago there were a couple of productions in Germany, one in Würzburg and the other in Kaiserlauten. In all these cases the casts were rather too modest, including Paris. Frankfurt changed that.

Wagner, as he would go on to do, wrote both score and libretto, but it has little to do with the Wagner (more with Weber) we know from his mature years. There are aspects where Wagner comes up, especially in the text, with the redemption by love and the riddles of not asking questions between lovers, which remind us of Lohengrin. But still, Die Feen is a valuable opera, contrary to the composer’s own assessment. The libretto is its weakest part, but then that’s nothing new when it comes to Richard Wagner. The opera, a weak first act apart, has its moments, good and bad… but the good ones are of undeniable quality. The overture lasts 11 minutes, and its final part offers faint whiffs of the Flying Dutchman. There are also remarkable influences from Mozart (the duet of Gernot and Droll reminds Papageno and Papagena), Beethoven (especially in the Ada’s aria in the second act), and above all Weber. Lora’s music is very reminiscent of that of Agathe in Der Freischütz and the same goes for Arindal’s aria. No doubt Wagner’s activity in Würzburg as the chorus director must have influenced the composition of this opera, since the choral passages are among the most prominent and best.

Frankfurt offered two concert performances of this opera under the musical direction of Sebastian Weigle, who offered the finest direction I’ve seen from him in recent years, where he has disappointed me more than he has convinced me. On this occasion his reading was excellent, effective, and well suited to the demands of this score… and orchestra and chorus went right along with it.

American soprano Tamara Wilson ​​was an outstanding interpreter of the character of Ada, a kind of proto-Elsa, which moves between the pure lyricism and a few dramatic moments. She is a sturdy full lyric soprano with an attractive and very well projected voice, very homogeneous and she is able to sing piano when necessary.

Tenor Burkhard Fritz had to face a most difficult part, since the tessitura of Arindal is tough. Few tenors today could cope with such a demanding role. There was an announcement of indisposition, probably to take pressure off. Burkhard Fritz’s performance was remarkable, but could not avoid almost cracking in his arioso of the third act, but I say that it would have been a miracle otherwise, healthy or not.

The other big winner of the night was American soprano Brenda Rae in the part of Lora, King Arindal’s sister and wife of his friend Morald. In my previous trip to Frankfurt I could enjoy her Konstanze as I did this time in this grateful role.

Among the friends of King Arindal I should mention the performance of baritone Michael Nagy as Morald and bass Thosrten Grümbel as Gernot. Mr. Nagy offered a remarkable baritone, well-pitched and very expressive. Mr. Grümbel again showed off his beautiful voice, not too big, but full of nobility. It was a luxury to have both of them in the cast. The role of Drolla, Gernot’s fiancée, is of not much importance and it had an excellent performer in soprano Christiane Karg. The fairies were two sopranos, German Anja Fidelia Ulrich (Zemina) and Colombian Juanita Lascarro (Farzana). Both did well, particularly the former. Young Simon Bode doubled as Gunther (the third of Arindal’s friends) and the Messenger. His tenor is somewhat white, but it projects very well. His timbre reminded me of Klaus Florian Vogt’s.

The smaller parts were covered by Alfred Reiter as King of the Fairies, a luxury for such a small character,  Sebastian Geyer, as an excellent Herald, and Simon Bailey as the Magician Groma, who provides the tools to Arindal (shield, sword and lyre) so that he can recover his beloved Ada, as if Orfeo with Euridice. When it came to the final bows, ovations lasted nearly ten minutes, especially remarkable for a concert performance.

I will end my review with a few lines on the beautiful building of the Alte Oper (not to be mistaken with the modern (fairly unattractive) opera house. It was built in 1880 and destroyed in the bombing of Frankfurt in 1944. In the 60s reconstruction started by popular subscription and today is a true jewel, occupying a magnificent pedestrian plaza with restaurants and pavement cafes in the vicinity, with a beautiful walk through a park to get to the theater. One of the most beautiful classical music venues I know.

José Mª Irurzun