Sunday 17 March 2013

Die Feen, Chelsea Opera Group, 17 March 2013

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Lora – Elisabeth Meister
Ada – Kirstin Sharpin
Zemina – Eva Ganizate
Farzana – Emma Carrington
Drolla – Michelle Walton
Arindal – David Danholt
Gunther – Andrew Rees
Morald – Mark Stone
Gernot – Andrew Slater
Fairy King, Voice of Groma – Piotr Lempa
Harald - Ben McAteer
Messenger - Mario Mansillo

Chelsea Opera Group Chorus (chorus master: Deborah Miles-Johnson)
Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

Wagner’s attempts to have his first completed opera staged were to no avail; the interested reader may consult his autobiography, Mein Leben, for his own account. Eventually staged in Munich in 1888, five years after the composer’s death, it would not be staged in Britain until 1969, under the auspices of the Midland Music Makers Grand Opera Society. The Chelsea Opera Group, as is its custom, gave the work in concert, though I shall be fortunate enough to see Die Feen staged next month in Leipzig. It is a splendid work, far from perfect and at times immature, but far superior to a number of works, and indeed entire œuvres that continue, bafflingly, to hold the stages of many opera houses. For the Wagnerite, and indeed for those with any interest at all in musical history, there is considerable additional pleasure to be derived from the parlour game of identifying both the many influences upon the work and the ways in which it offers a true starting point for Wagner’s subsequent explorations.

Let me hand over for a moment to Wagner, writing 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.

And so of course, it would continue, Wagner writing all of his own musico-dramatic texts, even though in this instance he reworks – should that not be too modest a verb – Carlo Gozzi. One may trace a multitude 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, having 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, had Ada disappear, and followed here to the underworld, where, Orpheus-like (a tribute to Wagner’s beloved Gluck?), he restored her to life with voice and lyre, Arindal gains immortality and joins Ada in the land of the fairies. Immortality would, of course, become a curse or chimera to the later, Feuerbachian Wagner: think of Wotan. Here, however, the trials he 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, but rather to remind oneself that so many of the ideas on which German and indeed other dramatists draw are part of common currency, not least that of the resolutely unsentimental fairy tale, as in the present case. And then, there is Arindal’s hallucinatory Wild Hunt, which cannot but make one think of Gurrelieder.

I could go on and on about the ‘dramatic’ content, but 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, Mendelssohn, and Schumann 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. But in any case, the broader point is that, for Wagner at this time, standing firmly in a dominant tradition of eighteenth-century German æsthetics, 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.

Sadly, this performance was let down severely by the orchestra. Whilst it may not yet possess the Greek choral role of Wagner’s mature music dramas, it is nevertheless fundamental to the drama as a whole. Here, however, the players proved for the most part quite unequal to Wagner’s exacting demands. The first act suffered most, the strings in particular often painful to listen to, each desk apparently playing according to its own unique and highly variable system of temperament. Rhythm was little more of a strong point; indeed, at one point, Dominic Wheeler had to re-start proceedings, a wise split-second decision, which one did not envy him. In the circumstances, his direction of proceedings was not bad at all, though it could not be said that he boasted any especial insights. Ideally this music requires the advocacy of a great Wagner conductor, though very few have deigned to perform it, the late Wolfgang Sawallisch an honourable exception. Still, it seemed as though whatever Wheeler said to the orchestra, or at least to the strings, during the first interval paid off somewhat, for horrors were fewer as the work progressed. However, some truly dreadful woodwind and horn playing marred the beginning of the third act. At least the choral singing, whilst sometimes a little fuzzy and underpowered, stuck for the most part to the right words and notes.

There was a degree of tentativeness to some of the solo singing too, again most obviously in the first act, where one sometimes had the impression of relatively early rehearsal run-through. I later had it on good authority, however, that the soloists only received their scores two weeks prior to the performance; if that be true, one may appreciate their predicament, and deplore the situation. If there were often, though by no means always, a sense that greater familiarity with the score would have been of considerable assistance, there were no especially weak links in purely vocal terms. The smaller roles were in general well taken, Mark Stone impressive as the courtier, Morald, and Piotr Lempa splendidly stentorian in the small roles of the Voice of Groma the magician and the Fairy King; I should not be surprised to hear him in the future  as a big-stage Commendatore, even a Fafner.  Kirstin Sharpin’s Ada improved appreciably as the performance progressed; if vocal strength is intermittent at the moment, it is nevertheless present and will doubtless develop. Elisabeth Meister’s voice and dramatic presence are already the real thing; hers was undoubtedly the star turn of the evening. Not only did her voice stand head and shoulders above the others during ensembles, her dramatic commitment as Lora, Arindal’s sister, could be sensed and indeed seen throughout. At his best, David Danholt offered a tenor of impressive heft and no little tenderness. There were, however, times when he seemed a little uncertain and when his contribution petered out, perhaps out of tiredness.

Better than nothing, then, especially when nothing is what we have had for far too long. However, a rarity, even when its rarity-value is so thoroughly undeserved, often needs particularly talented advocacy, which in this case was at best fitful. Perhaps, in these circumstances, the cuts were not entirely ill-advised.