First Class Performance of Wagner’s First Opera

GermanyGermany  Wagner, Die Feen: Soloists, Chorus of Oper Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Ulf Schirmer (conductor). Leipzig Opera House, 20.4.2013 (MB)

Fairy King, Voice of Groma:  Igor Durlovski
Ada:  Christiane Libor
Zemina:  Viktorika Kaminskaite
Farzana:  Jean Broiekhuizen
Arindal:  Arnold Bezuyen
Lora:  Eun Yee You
Morald:  Detlef Roth
Drolla:  Jennifer Porto
Gernot:  Milcho Borovinov
Gunther:  Guy Mannheim
Harald:  Roland Schubert
Messenger:  Tae Hee Kwon
Children of Ada and Arindal:  Lukas Gosch, Leon Heilmann

Renaud Doucet (director)
André Barbe (designs)
Guy Simard (lighting)
Marita Müller (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Zuppardo (chorus master)

"Die Feen" - Richard Wagner an der Oper Leipzig; photo credit: Tom Schulze
“Die Feen” – Richard Wagner an der Oper Leipzig; photo credit: Tom Schulze

What is it about London buses or, in this case, buses in London and Leipzig? Hot on the heels of the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Die Feen last month, a fully-staged production has followed from Oper Leipzig. (In fact, its premiere took place in February, but this was my opportunity to see it.) The COG’s performance was a valiant effort, and boasted some fine singing, but was sadly let down by an apparently under-rehearsed orchestra. Leipzig did its greatest son proud, in a production and performance that made the case beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that Die Feen deserves a regular place in the repertory. It is not Parsifal, of course, yet what is? The Bayreuth ‘canon’ has done a great deal of harm, yet there is no reason why reparations should not be made, and in this of all years.

Since the Munich premiere in 1888, a production that received numerous repeat performances, stagings and concert performances have been sporadic. Angelo Neumann staged the work in Prague in 1893, as part of his cycle to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Wagner’s birth and the tenth of his death. The first Leipzig performance took place in 1938, conducted by Paul Schmitz and directed by Hans Schüler, with designs by Max Elten, forming part of another cycle, in this case the Geburtstadt’s celebrations for Wagner’s 125th birthday. In more recent years, especially celebrated was Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1983 cycle of the complete operas; other stagings have been proffered by Munich (Gärtnerplatz, 1989), Kaiserslautern and Würzburg (2005), and the Châtelet (2009, on period instruments). Though the present production is offered in collaboration with the Bayreuth Festival, Bayreuth’s performance of Die Feen is, somewhat oddly, and unlike those of Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, to be in concert. (None of the performances will belong to the Festival proper, but will instead take place in July, in the Stadthalle.)
So Leipzig may well be the only opportunity we have, and it should be seized by anyone who can. As Wagner himself, far from ashamed of his first completed opera, put it in Mein Leben:

“While I had written [the incomplete, preceding] Die Hochzeit without operatic embellishments and treated the material in the darkest vein, this time I festooned the subject with the most manifold variety: beside the principal pair of lovers I depicted a more ordinary couple and even introduced a coarse and comical third pair, which belonged to the operatic convention of servants and ladies’ maids. As to the poetic diction and the verses themselves, I was almost intentionally careless about them. I was not nourishing my former hopes of making a name as a poet; I had really become a ‘musician’ and a ‘composer’ and wanted simply to write a decent libretto, for I now realised nobody else could do this for me, inasmuch as an opera book is something unique unto itself and cannot be easily brought off by poets and literati.”

Renaud Doucet has a background in dance, though by now he has directed a good number of opera productions too. On this basis, I should happily see more, metatheatricality worn lightly, humorously, yet tellingly. Following a Saturday evening family meal, a father tunes in to a live broadcast of Die Feen from Oper Leipzig. The rest of the family departs, leaving him in peace to listen. Music becomes the key to the work as a whole; it enlists his emotions, transforms his understanding. In something of a modern fairy-tale, his living room becomes the performance space, not entirely unlike The Nutcracker, or indeed, closer to home, the tales of ETA Hoffmann. Romantic, pseudo-Nazarene mediævalism, Wagner’s (relative) youth, and our own time come together, in a (Midsummer Night’s?) dream-like mélange that prompts rather than answers our questions. What might seem a counterpart to all-too-comfortable Biedermeier home life soon has its tensions exposed: though the paterfamilias – and he is at best a weak example of the type – welcomes back his wife at the end of the broadcast, and leaves Ada to the fairies, beret-clad Wagner included, will he tire of his quotidian existence and hanker again after the immortality of that other world, that to which, as Arindal, he had exceptionally been admitted?

Wagner’s subsequent intellectual journey, via Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality, complicates the notion further. It is fitting, then, that Romanticism is both embraced and kept at a distance. (There is more than a little Romanticism in Feuerbach’s writings and indeed in Schopenhauer’s too.) At the time of writing, it was, especially in its German manifestation, a somewhat problematical notion. (One might ask, in Goethian fashion, whether it has ever not been.) In the context of Metternichian repression, Heine and Young Germany suspected and attacked its reactionary tendencies, yet its progressive – a loaded word, but let us have that pass just for the moment – seeds were far from fruitless yet, especially in the musical world. The celebratory final scene, in some senses perhaps an early presentiment of the Festwiese scene from Die Meistersinger, is thus neither presented nor received straightforwardly. As ever with Wagner, we are left with more questions than we started with.

Ulf Schirmer’s conducting of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra proved well-judged. Influences were apparent, Weber and Marschner especially but far from exclusively, but so, as in the staging, were hints – and sometimes rather more than hints – of what was to come. A phrase here or there might be ever so slightly underlined, or so I fancied, to alert one to a similarity with a phrase in Lohengrin, and indeed beyond. More importantly, the straining even at this stage towards through-composition was readily apparent, without entirely undermining the ‘number’ structure of this Romantic opera. Wagner without a great, or at least a very good, orchestra really is a waste of everyone’s time; the dark, ‘German’ sonorities of the Gewandhaus Orchestra suited Die Feen to a tee. What a relief it was to hear that this great orchestra’s traditions have not been traduced by ill-advised forays into pseudo-authenticity at the hands of the bewilderingly fêted Riccardo Chailly.

The cast was strong too. Early Wagner, like early Mozart or early Beethoven, does not take kindly to condescension; there was not a hint of that here. First among equals was Christiane Libor’s stunning Ada, her insane, Abscheulicher-squared aria fully realising Wagner’s Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient-inspired vision. Arnold Bezuyen, quite understandably, tired a little at one point as Arindal, but otherwise impressed with a fine combination of heft and tone. Detlef Roth was everyone would have hoped for as Morald, words and vocal line in properly Wagnerian, even musico-dramatic, tandem. Jennifer Porto and Milcho Borovinov delighted as Drollo and Gunther, their buffa duet cut in the COG concert performance yet triumphantly vindicated by its inclusion here, even though one could readily tell that it marked for Wagner more or less the end of a line, give or take a Liebesverbot. Only Eun Yee You’s Lora was a little disappointed, outclassed by COG’s wonderful Elisabeth Meister; the voice simply did not seem big enough and tuning was more than occasionally awry. Choral singing was of a consistently high standard throughout, as was direction of the chorus on stage.

London desperately needs a first-class performance of this wonderful work. If none of our companies can marshal the resources for a new production (and frankly, it is a matter of priorities – there is no reason why it should not be done ) then I strongly urge bringing this staging here. Let us hope, also, for a DVD release. In the meantime, if at all possible, a visit to Leipzig approaches the mandatory for anyone with an interest in Wagner.


Mark Berry