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Siegfried WAGNER (1869 – 1930)
Die Heilige Linde op. 15 (1927)
Arbogast, king of a German tribe – John Wegner (baritone)
Hildegard, his wife – Dagmar Schellenberger (soprano)
Sigrun, his sister – Ksenija Lukic (soprano)
Gundelind, his cousin – Mechthild Georg (mezzo-soprano)
Fritigern, a king’s son from a neighbouring tribe – Thorsten Scharnke (tenor)
Ekhart, a count – Adam Kruzel (baritone)
Philo, a minion of the Roman emperor - Volker Horn (tenor)
Caius, his messenger - Hein Heibuchel (tenor)
Autonoe - Katalin Ilalmai (mezzo-soprano)
Antenor – Roman Trekel (baritone)
A soldier – Soon-Dong Kwon (bass)
Knight – Josef Otten (bass)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Werner Andreas Albert
Recorded October 8-19, 2001, Philharmonie Köln
CPO 999 844-2 [3CDs: 50.01+50.53+48.13]


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‘Die Heilige Linde’ was Siegfried Wagner’s 14th opera. It was written in 1927 but only seems to have received its premiere in 2001 at Cologne Opera. Judging by the libretto of this work, which Siegfried wrote himself, his work seems to have been rather marooned on the twilight fringes of his father’s work. The work’s overall plot is tricky to comprehend as the notes provide a multilingual libretto but not a synopsis. Unfortunately, close reading of the libretto rather over-exposes you to Siegfried’s overblown rhetoric and clunky dramaturgy.

So that you can get a feel for the opera, I summarise the plot roughly as follows:-

Act 1: Arbogast, King of a German tribe, has cut down the Holy Linden tree because it is in the way of his view, Count Ekhart protests. Arbogast is being wooed by the Roman Philo who wants to make him a client Emperor of the Romans. Philo tells one of his men to kill Ekhart. Arbogast’s Queen, Hildegard, is less enamoured of the Romans and their gifts. Fritigern, a prince from a neighbouring tribe has come secretly to try and view Siegrun, Arbogast’s sister, who he is to marry.

The tribe celebrates the feast of Nerthus where statue of the goddess is taken for a bathe. As no-one is allowed to see the goddess, two prisoners of war do the act and then are executed, but Arbogast decries the whole proceedings only to be shouted down by his wife.

The prince Fritigern mistakes Hildegard for Siegrun and falls in love with Hildegard, only to discover his mistake. A woman is stoned for adultery and the Roman Philo realises that Fritigern is in love with Hildegard. As Arbogast and Hildegard leave for Rome, Ekhart’s murdered body is brought on.

Act 2: In Rome, Philo primes his men to be sycophantic to Arbogast. Philo is in serious debt and his popularity is in decline so he has arranged for a revolt to be staged against himself.

Philo entertains Arbogast and Hildegard but Hildegard refuses to wear Roman costume. The mock revolt happens and makes Philo a hero. They all go off to the Circus, but Hildegard refuses. Hildegard is unhappy at Arbogast’s seduction by the Romans. At the Circus Fritigern has rescued a Christian woman from the lions and he comes on carrying her and gives her to Hildegard’s women.

Philo pretends there is a conspiracy against Arbogast and persuades Fritigern to take Hildegard away for safekeeping and then he tells Arbogast that they have run off together. He tempts Arbogard with the girl Autonoe

Act 3: Arbogast is back in Germany with Autonoe. Antenor, a fisherman from Autonoe’s village appears and reminds her of their past times. She runs away with him. Hildegard’s father has united with Fritigern and the two tribes are attacking Arbogast’s tribe. Arbogast asks the Romans for help and Philo agrees in exchange for a substantial grant of territory; Arbogast finally realises that Philo is deceitful. Hildegard’s serving woman tells him where she has hidden Arbogast and Hildegard’s son and that the child is plagued by visits from Hildegard’s ghost.

In the hut where Arbogast and Hildegard’s son is hidden, Hildegard sings to the child. The maid lets Arbogast and the serving woman, Gundelind in. Arbogast and Hildegard are reconciled.

Fritigern appears and challenges Hildegard that she loves him not Arbogast, but she remains true to Arbogast. A procession appears with Arbogast’s body as he has fallen in the battle. Fritigern swears love to Hildegard, she tells him to wait and sings of the newly sprouted Holy Linden Tree, growing anew.

There is a great deal that goes on in this opera and there are lots of loose ends, effects without a cause and unresolved issues (what happens to Philo?). A great musician might have been able to bring it off, but then again a great musician would probably have tried to use a better constructed libretto. The characters are just symbols rather than three dimensional people. Despite the Germanic setting, the whole plot lacks the clarity and simplicity of Richard Wagner’s plots and his ability to imbue his plots with the potency of myth. Only at the end, does Siegfried show some understanding of the nature of myth. The funeral pyre for Arbogast is not the nihilistic conflagration of his father’s opera but a fire of renewal, with a new sapling replacing the felled Linden tree and the promise of a new king/hero (Fritigern) to replace the old one. Unfortunately to reach this satisfying conclusion, Siegfried manipulates the plot quite badly. Fritigern is called upon to do much unheroic lurking. And after Arbogast has drawn his sword on Philo, both Philo and the Romans effectively disappear. As Philo is the most developed character in the opera this provides a fatal lack of closure, but also undermines the renewal of the finale as we, the audience, know that historically the Romans were still lurking in the background and that there would be no long-term renewal for the Germanic tribes.

The problems with the opera are compounded by Siegfried’s apparent reliance on archetypes from his father’s operas, even to using the same voice type. So that Arbogast (bass baritone) is the king whose rule relies on doubtful treaties and advice from a wily councillor (Wotan); Arbogast is also the King whose wife develops a guilty passion (King Mark). Philo is the wily councillor peddling double-sided advice (Loge); Fritigern is the fallible hero falling in love unwittingly with someone forbidden (Siegmund/Siegfried) and Hildegard is the Isolde/Sieglinde figure, nursing a guilty passion. You can push these analogies too far but given that the roles are sung by singers more or less suitable for the archetypal roles and this leads to problems.

Much of the drama lies in the dialogue sections which Siegfried sets in a sort of continuous arioso with a rather uninteresting vocal line accompanied by often ravishing orchestral textures. The interest, alas, frequently lies just in the orchestra and the voice lines do rather maunder on. The last act is the strongest; especially as he uses two attractive orchestral interludes to fill in the emotional background. The final conflagration is musically some distance from his father as it is based on a stirring hymn-like melody associated with the linden tree itself.

The cast themselves do very well with the music and their commitment shines through. As Arbogast, John Wegner is dramatic but I found his voice a little strained at times. Arbogast comes over as a rather gullible, reactive character; Wagner hardly allows us into Arbogast’s inner thoughts so Wegner does not really have much material to work with. Thorsten Scharnke as Fritigern makes a fine upstanding hero. When Wagner gives him some substantial material, such as in his Act 1 aria after he has discovered the woman he loves is Hildegard not Sigrun, he displays a fine, flexible resonant voice. Dagmar Schellenberger makes an attractive Hildegard though the vibrato in her voice becomes rather over-pronounced in the upper register. Volker Horn get the most dramatic meat as the scheming Philo and Horn makes the most of the role, creating one of the strongest characters in the opera. As Autonoe, Katalin Halmai sounds a little too matronly and cannot conjure up the seductive tones with which to entrance Arbogast.

This is a well made opera and there are attractive moments, but it never really grips you. I wondered whether Siegfried should have been writing opera at all. The piece opens with a Prelude which is a remarkable 16 minutes long. This is an attractive, well made tone poem that goes over the ground covered by the opera rather more succinctly and more interestingly. Would Siegfried have been a more successful composer if he had had the courage to break away from his father’s example?

The WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln make the most of all the opportunities that Siegfried gives them and play beautifully, creating some ravishing textures at times. Werner Andreas Albert obviously believes in this music and imbues the performance with that quality which is needs the most – conviction.

Robert Hugill

 

 



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