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Offenbach, The Rhine Fairies: (Concert Performance) Soloists, Kent Sinfonia, New Sussex Opera Chorus/Nicholas Jenkins, Cadogan Hall, London, 27.10. 2009 (J-PJ)


Armgard - Kate Valentine
Hedwig - Anne-Marie Owens
Franz - David Curry
Conrad - Quentin Hayes
Godfrey - Daniel Grice
Queen of the Fairies - Birgit Rohowska
Peasant Girl - Red Gray
Soldiers - Andrew Holden, David James
Dryads - Hilary Jane Andrews, Rachel Rodgers
Spy - John Newman
Henchman - Chris Holwell

It is something of a surprise to discover that this was only the third performance of the complete version of Offenbach’s ‘serious’ Romantic opera, The Rhine Fairies. The London audience at the Cadogan Hall had to wait for Lewes and Eastbourne to have their turn first.

Composed in 1863 for the profitable and appreciative Austrian market, and first performed at the Hofoperntheater in Vienna in 1864, the Rhine Fairies (or Die Rheinnixen to give it its original title) was written to a German libretto and proved a healthy success for the wily master of Parisian operetta. After that, it fell into obscurity - partly due to the composer’s failure to revive it after his return to France, and partly because of its shaky libretto and occasional dramatic weaknesses.

This concert performance, using a published version of the score by Jean-Christophe Keck for Boosey & Hawkes/Bote & Bock, reveals a mini masterwork that easily stands alongside the very best of Offenbach’s opéra bouffes and his final ‘grand opera’, The Tales of Hoffman. Indeed, The Rhine Fairies contains two significant numbers that later made their way into Hoffman - a drinking song in Act I, and a repeated elves’ song that first appears in the overture and was subsequently transformed into the famous Barcarolle.

An enthusiastic advocate of the opera, conductor Nicholas Jenkins seemed to revel in the melodic and harmonic sophistication of the score. Parts of it recall Weber, Mendelssohn and even Wagner (who detested both Offenbach and Die Rheinnixen), yet Offenbach’s lively rhythmic spontaneity were still clearly discernable. Some fine playing in the brass section emphasised the dramatic weight of the drama, although the odd wobble in the strings did occasionally disturb the ear.

Overall the cast was superb. Kate Valentine made a sympathetic and at times powerful Armgard, the young heroine caught up in the midst of conflict between rival Rhenish knights. She was matched by Anne-Marie Owens as her mother Hedwig. Enjoying a role of real depth, Owens displayed great almost Verdian stamina and emotional insight. Of the male leads, Quentin Hayes stood out as Conrad, the warring knight who eventually comes to accept the of value peace and family love after discovering Armgard to be his daughter. His firm tone and dramatic versatility probably had the edge over David Curry as Armgard’s long-lost lover, Franz. But there was nothing inferior about Curry’s lithe, expressive voice in a role that audibly prefigures Hoffman.

The female members of the New Sussex Chorus performed exceptionally well, with several singers also doubling up as Rhine Fairies (who, in fact, hardly appear in the opera). The male members were at times less assured, and sounded a little ragged and strangely depleted in some of the big soldier choruses.

Two further niggles: First, the English translation of the libretto, though serviceable, did contain some corkers. ‘What dreadful luck I’ve had; it’s too bad’ comes to mind. Surely it would have made sense to stick with the original German text? Secondly, at over two-and-a-half hours long, this opera would have made much more of an impact as a staged or at least semi-staged production. But perhaps that view is as a measure of the work’s success in enticing me to explore it further.

John-Pierre Joyce

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