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Heinrich MARSCHNER (1795-1861)
Hans Heiling, Romantic opera in a Prologue and Three Acts
Queen of Earth Spirits: Rebecca Teem (soprano)
Hans Heiling, her son: Heiko Trinsinger (baritone)
Anna, his bride: Jessica Muirhead (soprano)
Gertrude, her mother: Bettina Ranch (alto)
Konrad, hunter and Anna’s sweetheart: Jeffrey Dowd (tenor)
Stephan, his friend: Karel Martin Ludvik (bass)
Niklas, his friend: Hans-Günter Papirnik (tenor)
Opernchor des Aalto-Theaters, Bergwerksorchester Consolidation
Essener Philharmoniker/Frank Beermann
rec. live, February 2018, Aalto-Musiktheater Essen, Germany
German text provided
OEHMS CLASSIC OC976 [65:42 + 74:09]

German Romantic opera does not command anything like the same profile as does Italian opera, and it can be hard to find recordings of even the major works of anyone other than Weber and Wagner. Lortzing, Marschner, Spohr, Nicolai and Cornelius are the composers I have in mind. Fortunately, the opera houses in Germany occasionally put on these works, and enterprising companies such as CPO, Capriccio or, in this case, Oehms, sometimes record them, so that those of us who live where the chance of attending a live production is vanishingly small can get to know them. You can also find some of them on live opera sites.

Marschner is a case in point. He is sometimes considered the leading German opera composer between Weber, who was for a time his boss in Dresden, and Wagner, whose increasing fame later overshadowed him. Supernatural themes were popular at the time, as is shown by Weber’s Der Freischütz, and both of Marschner’s best-known works, employ them, Der Vampyr of 1828, whose premiere was attended by the young Wagner, and Hans Heiling, which followed five years later.

The story derives from folk tales recorded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The libretto was originally intended for Mendelssohn, who turned it down as too similar to Der Freischütz. Hans Heiling comes from the spirit world but is engaged to a mortal woman, Anna. In the prologue he makes clear his resolve to leave the spirit world, and his mother gives him a magic book. In the first Act he goes to Anna’s house but is then upset by her coldness. He burns the book to please her, thus cutting himself off from the spirit world. However, he later finds Anna dancing with Konrad, against his wishes, which leads him to despair as he realizes that Anna never loved him.

In the second Act Anna, alone in the forest, is met by Heiling’s mother who wants her to leave Heiling alone. Anna faints, is found by Konrad and they declare their love for each other. Heiling turns up and demands that Anna marry him. She refuses, he stabs Konrad and departs.

In the third Act Heiling appeals to the spirits but they mock him and tell him that Konrad has recovered and is going to marry Anna before eventually reinstating him as their king. He vows revenge. The final scene begins with the wedding ceremony of Konrad and Anna. Heiling interrupts it. Konrad tries to attack him but his sword breaks. Heiling wants to kill him but his mother intervenes and takes him back to the spirit world. The human lovers are left rejoicing.

You do not need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Freudian to realize that this story is an allegory of the difficulties of growing up. The spirit world here stands for the enchanted world of childhood in which Heiling is a king. He would like to break out of it and find ordinary human love, but his love for Anna is actually a possessive crush. When she rejects him, he turns to violence and the only way out is to return to his mother. Wagner’s leading characters all tend to be on similar but more successful quests, so it is obvious why the work appealed so much to him.

I was astonished when I started listening to the music. If I hadn’t known the facts, I would have said that this was surely the opera Wagner wrote just before Der fliegende Holländer. There is the contrast between the worlds of everyday life and the supernatural, the dramatic orchestration, the lively use of the chorus, and even some of the same turns of phrase. In the second act, in the scene of Anna in the forest, there is also a passage which Wagner lifted much later, for the Todesverkündigung in Die Walküre. However, most of this scene evokes rather the Wolf’s Glen scene from Der Freischütz. I must admit that the music is nothing like as memorable as either Weber or Wagner. On the other hand, it moves quickly and is always appropriate and attractive. The opera is actually a Singspiel, with some spoken dialogue, though clearly Marschner is moving towards a completely through-composed work, as is shown by the frequent use of melodrama, i.e. spoken passages over music, as in the dungeon scene in Fidelio.

The performance is taken from a run of live performances, which means that all concerned knew one another and worked well together. This is a real ensemble production. There are some production pictures in the booklet, which show that it was done in modern dress. I can think of nothing more calculated to kill the supernatural theme stone dead, but it doesn’t appear to affect the audio side. The orchestra and chorus are crisp and alert. Of the principals, I preferred the women to the men.  Jessica Muirhead is charming as Anna, and Bettina Ranch as her mother is really powerful in her big scene. Rebecca Teem has to establish the Queen of the Earth Spirits – perhaps a cousin of the Queen of the Night – right at the beginning and does so convincingly. I was less taken with the men. Heiling is not a sympathetic role: in the terms of the story he wants to give up his proper role for a girl who doesn’t fancy him and then tries to spoil things for her. The role seems slightly high for Heiko Trinsinger and his big aria in the first act does not really establish him as someone to be reckoned with. Jeffrey Dowd is competent but rather anonymous as Konrad. Frank Beermann holds the proceedings together well. Applause and some spoken dialogue are included.

The actual recording is very good, with a minimum of stage noise. The set is attractively presented in a box, with a booklet which contains an introduction and synopsis in German and English but the libretto is in German only. This also contains the words of only the sung parts and the melodramas, not the spoken dialogue. For a small extra investment, Oehms could have provided the complete text and a translation, which would have made the recording more attractive to English-speaking listeners. 

A check on the catalogue shows that, apart from some old and dubious-looking live opera performances, the only real rival to this is an Italian production conducted by Renato Palumbo on DVD, so if you want to explore German romantic opera between Weber and Wagner, you should try this.

Stephen Barber

 

 



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