(a paper originally given at the OBERTO conference: Staging Operatic Anniversaries, at Oxford Brookes University, 10 September 2013)
Many in Wagner’s generation and in more than one generation before him found themselves preoccupied with the question, ‘What is German?’ A celebrated epigram by Schiller had begun by asking: ‘Germany? Where is it? I don’t know how to find it.’ Wagner himself essayed the question more than once, whether as a particular focus or as one amongst several. Much Wagner scholarship has, however, suffered from insufficient appreciation of that question’s nineteenth-century context and specifically of Wagner’s Saxon inheritance. His upbringing in Leipzig and Dresden, in the ‘third Germany’ that was neither Prussia nor Austria, profoundly informed his understanding of things ‘German’.
|Herz's Gotterdammerung (1976)|
Interestingly, however, that has been changing, not least in preparation for the bicentenary. A new statue, the competition won by sculptor Stephan Balkenhof, has been erected, funds notably coming from private subscription rather than from the state or municipality. Balkenhof was faced with the specified task of integrating an unrealised conception from a century earlier, by Max Klinger, the end result thus incorporating an aspect of Leipzig’s ambivalent Wagner reception as well as a clear, downsizing attempt, very much of our time, to render Wagner the young man just that, rather than a towering nineteenth-century Romantic genius. Musically, Leipzig has distinguished itself by staging Wagner’s three ‘early’ operas. Earlier this year, I saw Die Feen, which Bayreuth, in its co-production of those three works, somewhat mystifyingly elected to perform only in concert, thus ceding something of its position as Wagnerstadt. It was one of the two most significant Wagner stagings I have so far seen this year, the other coming from the Mozartstadt of Salzburg, in Stefan Herheim’s new production of Die Meistersinger, a rare Wagner outing for the summer festival: the first time that particular work had been seen there since the 1930s, and itself, along with Herheim’s Parsifal and Lohengrin a truly outstanding attempt to grapple with Wagner’s place in German history.
|A scene from Herheim's Meistersinger: © Salzburger Festspiele / Forster|
While I had written [the incomplete, preceding work] 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 realized 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.
And so of course, it would continue, Wagner furnishing all of his own musico-dramatic texts, even if in this instance he reworks – perhaps too modest a verb – Carlo Gozzi. One may trace a multitude of other continuities or presentiments, not least the idea of the forbidden question, albeit the other way round from Lohengrin, at least in terms of gender: Ada, the half-fairy, half-mortal, has agreed to marry Arindal, the King of Tramond, with the condition that he never ask her who she is. Die Feen, however, is no tragedy; for, after inevitably having asked the question, having therefore seen Ada disappear, and having followed her to the underworld, where, Orpheus-like (surely a tribute to Wagner’s beloved Gluck?), he restores her to life with voice and lyre, Arindal gains immortality and joins Ada in the land of the fairies. The trials Arindal must undergo both recall The Magic Flute and presage Die Frau ohne Schatten. That is not, of course, to say that Die Feen itself is a crucial link between Mozart and Strauss – though Wagner certainly is, and Strauss actually served as assistant conductor for that Munich premiere – but rather to remind ourselves that so many of the ideas on which dramatists draw are part of common currency, especially when dealing with ‘what is German’, not least the resolutely unsentimental fairytale..
I could happily continue with respect to the ‘dramatic’ content, yet ought at least briefly to say something in similar vein, if equally selective, about the music. For instance, there is a second-act figure that naggingly anticipates Tristan, and the choral writing certainly at times looks forward to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Looking back, Weber, Marschner, and only slightly less, Beethoven and Mendelssohn loom large in the general music language, this being a more unalloyed ‘German’ opera than either of its two immediate successors, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, though the Italian and French influences upon those works have often been exaggerated. In any case, the broader point is that, for Wagner at this time, standing firmly in a dominant tradition of eighteenth-century German aesthetics, perhaps the key to understanding ‘German art’ was its power of synthesis, overcoming merely ‘national’ styles to progress, in his later Zurich ‘reform’ language, toward the universal.
|Copyright: Kirsten Nijhof. Christiane Libor (Ada), Arnold Bezuyen (Arindal)|
Ulf Schirmer’s conducting of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra proved well-judged. Early Romantic influences were apparent, 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. The dark, typically old ‘German’ sonorities of the Gewandhaus Orchestra – so different, for instance, from the more homogenised, ‘international’ Berlin Philharmonic, of Karajan’s vintage, let alone Rattle’s – helped ‘place’ it within a recognisable tradition.
In performing this work – and performing it in such a fashion, both on stage and in the pit – Leipzig took one step further towards reconciliation with its greatest son. This may not have been the intention, but perhaps we should also take this opportunity at least partly to shift our attention from Wagner’s later life, as focused upon places such as Munich and Bayreuth, to his earlier years, not least so that we might construct a richer, more complex picture of what it meant – and means – for Wagner and his music to be German.