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
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
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,
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.