Seen and Heard International Opera
WAGNER, Die Feen, Soloists, chorus
and orchestra, Francesco Corti (conductor), Johannes Reitmeier
(director), Pfalztheater, Kaiserslautern, February 5th, 2005 (SM)
Wagner, Die Feen, Soloists, chorus and
orchestra, Evan Christ (conductor), Christian Pöppelreiter
(director), Mainfrankentheater, Würzburg, February 12th,
While performances of Wagner’s mature operas are almost
ten-a-penny in Germany nowadays, with even the gargantuan Ring
seeming to hold no fears for the smallest houses, the composer’s
three early works, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot
or Rienzi rarely - if ever - get an outing. In the space
of just one week, two opera houses in Germany, only a couple of
hours’ drive apart, have ventured to put on new stagings
of Wagner’s first complete opera, Die Feen, written
when the composer was just 20; it was a mouth-watering opportunity
to get to know a work that is so rarely heard, either live or
on record, and, which like Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi,
is actually banished from Wagner’s holy of holies, Bayreuth.
Kaiserslautern, in south west Germany, was the seemingly unlikely
venue for the first of the two productions, which opened on February
5 and the curtain went up on a rival staging just a week later
on February 12 in Würzburg, a drive of just two-and-a-half
Würzburg’s director, Christian Pöppelreiter,
was able to cite historical reasons for venturing to stage a work
that even the most ardent Wagnerians do not know. It was in Würzburg,
where he was chorus director, that Wagner originally composed
his "romantic opera" in 1833, even if it was never actually
staged there and only received its premiere in Munich in 1888,
five years after the composer's death. The new production was
a gift from Würzburg’s huge Richard Wagner Association
to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city’s Mainfrankentheater.
Reitmeier, in Kaiserslautern, could boast no such historical pedigree.
But his argument for choosing the work, rather than tackling one
of Wagner’s ten mature operas, was refreshingly simple -
to unearth a new oeuvre in the sacred Wagner canon in a country
which must be close to reaching saturation point in productions
of the Ring. Full marks, then, to both houses for their
courage and sense of adventure in tackling such an unknown opera
at a time when other companies seem to believe that only works
of mass appeal can help safeguard their budgets.
Fortunately for Pöppelreiter, the Würzburg production
was blessed with a more generous budget from the world’s
biggest Richard Wagner Association, and was therefore able to
import bigger names. Indeed, Würzburg was the higher profile
affair altogether, with even the composer’s 85-year-old
grandson Wolfgang in the first-night audience, alongside his second
wife Gudrun. Interestingly, their daughter Katharina, who made
her directing debut in Würzburg a couple of years ago with
a surprisingly irreverent production of Der fliegende Holländer,
was absent. And as a piece of music theatre, it was probably Pöppelreiter’s
that was more convincing.
Pöppelreiter, who has already staged the complete Ring
in Graz, trims and shapes Wagner's rather convoluted fable of
a love between a fairy and a human to his own ends. According
to the story, based on a fairy tale play La donna serpente
by Carlo Gozzi, King Arindal falls in love with fairy Ada. In
order to seal their love, Arindal must promise not to ask Ada
who she is, or where she comes from, for a period of eight years.
But his curiosity gets the better of him and he asks the forbidden
question before the time is up. As a result, Arindal and Ada must
undergo a series of difficult tests, at the end of which their
love finally triumphs and Arindal achieves immortality.
The themes of redemption, a forbidden question, and a love between
a mortal and a supernatural being all recur in Wagner's later
works, and musically, too, there are striking harbingers of motifs
from operas such as Holländer, Lohengrin
or Tannhäuser. But with its succession of individual
numbers, Die Feen resembles more the operas of Carl Maria
von Weber, Heinrich Marschner, or even Beethoven, than the stage
works of the mature Wagner. Nevertheless, the composer's grasp
of the orchestra at the tender age of 20 is astonishing, even
if the dramatic weaknesses of Wagner's own - sometimes ham - libretto
are clearly apparent.
For Pöppelreiter, the central figure of the drama is the
Fairy King, to whom Wagner assigns only a subsidiary role, and
his lust for power. And the Würzburg production offers us
anything but a happy ending. The two lovers are crushed by the
systems they try so valiantly to break out of. Arindal loses his
mind and Ada becomes merely a puppet for her power-hungry father.
Jörg Kossdorf's clear-cut designs, bathed in threatening
reds and blacks, underline the darkness of Pöppelreiter's
reading and the brooding malevolence of the fairy world. And the
costumes of Götz Lanzelot Fischer are similarly simple and
effective, with Ada's long, sweeping gown and the train of Arindal's
robe becoming the means by which their respective kingdoms hold
and trap them. The fairies are clothed in Gothic/Punk black.
While Pöppelreiter's retelling of the story is almost classical
in its stringency, Reitmeier in Kaiserslautern opts for the visually
more "baroque". His set designer, Thomas Dörfler,
places the action in what appears to be "Ground Zero"
in New York, with the bombed out shell of the building bearing
more than a passing resemblance to the shattered remains of the
World Trade Center.
The fairies, here, as in Würzburg, creatures more malevolent
than benign, emerge from and return to what seems to be a meteor
or a spaceship from another world, while Arindal's kingdom of
Tramond is peopled by the injured masses, the fire-fighters and
rescue teams of September 11. Reitmeier's ending is also not a
happy one. Compromised by his repeated doubts and weaknesses,
Arindal's love is not able to transform Ada into a human. And
the two lovers must remain trapped in the cold, sterile immortality
of the fairies.
Musically, the two productions are also very different. In Kaiserslautern,
the principals were all members of the Pfalztheater's own ensemble.
And full marks should go to Reitmeier for that reason alone. But
without the aid of surtitles, "Textverständlichkeit"
did not seem to be top priority in the house. And with such fiercely
difficult lead roles, Kaiserslautern's own lead tenor, Alexander
Fedin, was simply not up to the taxing part of Arindal.
In fact, none of the male leads in Kaiserslautern was very convincing,
in contrast to the three main female roles of Ada, Lora and Drolla,
which were all excellently sung and acted by Dagmar Hesse, Adelheid
Fink and Arlette Meissner. The house orchestra, too, was a little
rough-and-ready under general music director Francesco Corti,
with pungent brass and woodwinds not really able to make up for
a rather thin-sounding string section
The Mainfrankentheater's musical superiority was evident from
the very first chord. The young US conductor Evan Christ, first
Kapellmeister and deputy GMD in Würzburg, was in perfect
control of the Würzburg Philharmonic and also seemed to have
a much securer grip on the score. And his soloists, too, were
of a different calibre. American tenor Edward Randall sang Arindal,
with a well-rounded, secure voice, even if he looked constantly
perplexed and puzzled by what was going on around him. Würzburg's
own Deborah Mayer gave Ada a full-bodied Wagnerian soprano with
no hint of squalliness and was perfectly able to scale back to
a delicate piano where necessary. Diction was admirably clear
in all parts, but never more so than in Andreas Bauer's Gernot.
Rachel Tovey was striking both in figure and voice as Lora and
Silke Evers sang Drolla with a delightfully light soprano. And
special mention should perhaps be made of both choruses which
excelled in each of the productions.
At the end of the day, I would probably choose Würzburg's
as the more satisfying and well-rounded evening, if pressed. But
the sum of the Kaiserlautern production was also definitely better
than its parts and should in no way be sniffed at either. Furthermore,
the chance of seeing two new productions of Die Feen
within such a short space of time is surely unmissable and may,
hopefully, resurrect interest in a work which offers such intriguing
and fascinating glimpses into the later Wagner.
Würzburg photos © Emmanuel Rivas, supplied courtesy
Kaiserslautern photos: Thomas Jank, courtesy of Pfalztheater,