Wednesday 23 April 2014

Die Feen, Oper Leipzig, 20 April 2014

Leipzig Opera House

Fairy King, Voice of Groma – Sejong Chang
Ada – Elisabet Strid
Zemina – Magdalena Hinterdobler
Farzana – Jean Broiekhuizen
Arindal – Arnold Bezuyen
Lora – Eun Yee You
Morald – Mathias Hausmann
Drolla – Paula Rummel
Gernot – Milcho Borovinov
Gunther – Ferdinand van Bothmer
Harald – Roland Schubert
Messenger – Tae Hee Kwon
Children of Ada and Arindal – Lukas Gosch, Jacob Scipio

Renaud Doucet (director)
André Barbe (designs)
Guy Simard (lighting)
Marita Müller (dramaturgy)

Chorus of Oper Leipzig (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Matthias Foremny (conductor)

Perhaps one of the more surprising yet ultimately most significant revelations of Wagner Year for me was this Leipzig production of Die Feen and the conviction it furthered that Wagner’s first opera was not merely ‘interesting’, not merely ‘promising’, and so on, but a work which had been poorly, extremely unfairly treated by history – or rather by the lazy judgements of those claiming, and usually failing, to know the opera. Doubtless there will be exceptions – there are, after all, people who do not take to Parsifal – but I have yet to speak to anyone who has actually attended a performance of Die Feen who has not thought highly of it, if not necessarily quite so highly as I do.  Uncannily, it was a year to the day – 20 April 2013 – when I heard that Leipzig performance as part of the first outing for Renaud Doucet’s delightful yet not unprobing staging. 20 April 2014 actually brought me to tears as the third act drew to a close, both delighted at the opportunity and saddened at the condescension or just downright ignorance with which this wonderful work still meets.

So three cheers once again to Oper Leipzig. I shall not dwell on the staging, essentially because I have written about it before, along with some background both to the work and to other productions (click here), and the revival serves to confirm rather than to transform its qualities. On this basis, I should happily see more, metatheatricality worn lightly, humorously, yet tellingly. The metatheatricality, as I observed previously, is worn lightly yet wittily frames the performance – and reminds us, again lightly, that occasions such as this are few and far between. Following a Saturday evening family meal, a father tunes in to a live broadcast of Die Feen from Oper Leipzig. In something of a modern fairy-tale, his living room becomes the performance space, blurring of typical performing boundaries in a sense a counterpart to the blurring – yet ultimate upholding – of the world of immortality, the world of the fairies, to which, as Arindal, he, through the workings of his imagination, had exceptionally been admitted. In both cases, and above all through the medium of music – tellingly, in a clear echo of Orpheus and his lyre, that is how Wagner brings the story to reconciliation – this man, perhaps unremarkable and yet receptive and dedicated, brings different worlds together. It is not a bad model for artistic endeavour in more general terms: we all have our part to play, but the question is whether we shall be willing.

Where Ulf Schirmer had tended more towards the early Romantic tendencies undoubtedly present in Wagner’s score – Mendelssohn, Marschner, Weber, and so on – Matthias Foremny seemed more concerned to place Wagner in the line he himself would later stress, if not necessarily for this work. Beethoven’s example stood  more clearly than before: both the symphonic and the operatic composer. More than once I was put in mind of Wagner's early, underrated C major Symphony, but also of the advances he had made upon his work since then. Sometimes this worked better than others; there were occasions, for instance, when forward thrust was occasioned perhaps at the expense of ebb and flow. But for the most part, this was a valid, thought-provoking performance, which brought out something close to the best of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Its ‘old German’ glow seemed almost as much a welcome resurrection as that of the work itself, though in reality, of course, the former has never really gone away; it is more the case that one has to look, or listen, harder to find it in an age in which orchestral homogenisation is all too often the rule.

Morald (Matthias Hausmann) and Lora (Eun Yee You)
Arnold Bezuyen once again impressed in the title role, not least in his portrayal of the difficult compromise between domesticity and the heroism that our paterfamilias imagines. There was some tiring towards the end of the third act, but Bezuyen recovered well. I had not encountered Elisabet Strid before, but she certainly impressed as Ada, a worthy successor to last year’s Christiane Libor. If only a woman in the centre stalls had not loudly coughed throughout the whole of Ada’s great second-act aria, so clearly inspired by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (the aria, that is, rather than the coughing). Strid nevertheless rose above such selfish provocation to give a fine account of that extremely difficult number. Eun Yee You still seemed stretched as Lora, but had somewhat grown into the role. Mathias Hausmann offered a strong performance as Morald, whilst Paula Rummel and Milcho Borovinov delighted in their surprising buffo duet – and not just there. Though perhaps a little too much of a contrast for consistency to be maintained, it is a lovely piece and so it sounded here; the pair’s acting skills contributed as much as their musicality. The Leipzig Opera Chorus also made great contributions in both respects: their role here is often considerable, and gave no little pleasure on this occasion.

I shall conclude by repeating my pleas both for this excellent production to be filmed, so that others may see – and hear – it, and for other houses to follow Leipzig’s suit. This is a work that has been wronged indeed; it is our responsibility finally to right that wrong.