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Siegfried WAGNER (1869 - 1930)
Sonnenflammen (1912) [132.50]
Alexios – Roman Trekel (baritone)
Irene – Michaela Schneider (soprano)
Fridolin – Richard Brunner (tenor)
Albrecht – Jürgen Trekel (bass)
Gomella – Niels Giesecke (tenor)
Iris – Eva Batori (soprano)
Eustachia – Ulrike Schneider (alto)
Gottfried – Ulrich Studer (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of Halle Opera House/Roger Epple
rec. live, 27-31 January 2003, Georg-Friedrich-Handel-Halle
CPO 777 097–2 [64.36 + 68.14]

Siegfried Wagner wrote his eighth opera, Sonnenflammen, in 1912. It had to wait until 1918 for its first performance - at the Grand Ducal court theatre in Darmstadt. It went on to have productions in a number of other German opera houses, with Richard Tauber appearing as Fridolin in the Dresden production. But then, like most of the composer’s other works, it vanished from the operatic stage in the 1930s.
 
The opera was revived in concert form in 1979 in Wiesbaden and then in 2002 it received a concert performance in Halle. The Halle City Theatre has a long association with the work of Siegfried Wagner and the composer also conducted concerts of his own work in the theatre.  This recording is based on live performances at the Halle City Theatre in January 2003.
 
The long gap in the work’s performance history is partly attributable to the wishes of Siegfried’s widow, Winifred, who prohibited performances. It is only with the expiry of copyright on Siegfried’s works (in 2001) that they have been generally available.
 
Given the work’s chequered history, it would be nice to report that it is a forgotten masterwork, but the truth is rather more complicated. Siegfried Wagner was his own librettist and unfortunately he was not as talented as his father. Siegfried the librettist excels at giving the composer highly coloured scenes and dramatic situations, but fails to link the whole into a satisfyingly coherent drama, full of effects without causes.
 
The plot is something of a mixture of Tannhäuser and Rigoletto, set in fourteenth century Byzantium just before the sack of the city by the Crusaders. It concerns the crusader Fridolin who is languishing at the decadent court of Emperor Alexios rather than fulfilling his knightly vows. Because of this the woman he loves, Iris, does not return his love. Iris’s father is the court jester, Gomella. He has been discovered in an act of theft and the Emperor has promised not to punish him if he makes his daughter submit to the Emperor’s attentions. The plot involves the attempts of Gomella and Iris to prevent her having to do this, Fridolin’s involvement in a failed coup against the Emperor and his punishment of having his head shaved and being forced to join Gomella as jester. The opera ends with Byzantium being attacked by the crusaders and the dying Fridolin receiving Iris’s declaration of love.
 
Siegfried Wagner the composer responds to this farrago with some highly effective, beautifully constructed music. There are some wonderful sounding scenes and some haunting musical effects. The substantial prelude, ten minutes long, would make a good concert work. The music is attractive and illustrative, clothing the plot in some lovely colours. Perhaps Wagner fails ultimately to create a suitable sound-world for Emperor Alexios’s decadent court; one imagines what someone like Richard Strauss would have done - just think of Salome. Wagner’s musical language is basically that of his father, pre-Tristan.
 
Roman Trekel makes a fine, upstanding Alexios; he is a musical singer but unfortunately just sounds too decent for the character. Michaela Schneider does what she can with his put upon wife. Richard Brunner is Fridolin; Brunner makes a good tenor hero though has moments of strain in the upper register and towards the end sounds as if he is, understandably, getting tired. But he is a strong singer and I hope to hear him in something a little more musically substantial. Eva Batori is attractive as his beloved Iris, though her upper register does sound a little pushed.
 
Niels Giesecke is Gomella, this is a buffo tenor role and sounds rather tricky; Giesecke does well with the part, but the effort shows in some of the more complex passages.
 
Under the leadership of Roger Epple, cast, chorus and orchestra give the work a committed performance and anyone who is interested in Siegfried Wagner’s music can be certain of hearing a performance which makes as strong a case as possible for the work.
 
Robert Hugill

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