Monday 18 March 2013

Wagner Die Feen Chelsea Opera Group

The Chelsea Opera Group brought Wagner's Die Feen to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  Although some of the singing was very good indeed, the performance was, to be kind, somewhat  rough and ready. But this was precisely why it entertained. Wagner's Die Feen was written when he was only 20.years old. It's a work of exuberant teenage enthusiasm. To give it the polished sheen of his mature work would spoil its naive charm.

Growing up in Leipzig and Dresden, there was no way Wagner would not have been influenced  by Carl Maria von Weber. Echoes of Weber keep resounding throughout Die Feen, making us recognize just how great a debt Wagner owed Weber and the whole early Romantic aesthetic, which itself stems from the baroque. That's why it is essential to appreciate operas that might not be "modern taste", like Der Freischütz. Listening through the blinkers of modern taste is bigotry. We can't appreciate Wagner fully without understanding his roots. Although we recognize references to Mozart and Beethoven,  the Weber references dominate. Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann might have been heading in terms of creating new forms of music theatre. We're blinded by modern taste to think mainly in terms of late 19th century style. Die Feen is interesting because it shows Wagner working within Weber's style without much success. The ensemble writing, for example, isn't elegant.  We need to wait for the quintet in Die Meistersinger before Wagner releases true good-natured harmony. 

It's also interesting to hear how much Die Feen suggests about Wagner's later work. Even at this early stage in his career, Wagner is not following conventional icons, but developing his own. Ada is half-fairy, half-mortal, like Loge. She must hide her identity from Arindal, though they love each other and have raised a family. Lohengrin merely sails away from Eva on his swan-ship. Arindal and Ada are cursed with a ferocity that makes the curse of the Ring look tame. Ada is imprisoned not by a ring of fire but by a block of stone, from which she can only be released by love. The fairies in Die Feen are warrior-like precursors of the Valkyries. Even Lora, Ada's sister, is formidable, more Brünnhilde than fairy tale princess.

Some of the best music in Die Feen is written for the female voices. Ada's call for action is stunning, then completely upstaged by Ada's long, stirring monologue. It feels like a duel between voices as well as between roles. For me, Act 2 made the whole evening worthwhile.  Kristin Sharpin, as Ada, in particular, was impressive, especially the Hélas! monologue, with its sudden leaps up the scale. There's Hélas chorus, too, but the solo writing is infinitely sharper. Why don't we hear more of Sharpin? It takes some doing to trump Elisabeth Meister, whom we all know and love, and who was a superlative Lora. But Wagner gave Ada the bigger part. 

David Danbolt sang Arindal, another huge part complete with mad scene, a reference to Orlando Furioso, where the hero is unmanned by love and grief.  Early Romantic plots may seem ludicrous to us, but to audiences in their time, elaborate plots reflected the sagas of the baroque.  When Robert le Diable came to London, someone sneered that the production didn't take the opera seriously enough. But neither did Meyerbeer nor the generations who flocked to performances. The idea that everything has to be realistic, or that every word counts is an affectation that stems from much later. Wagner created the revolution, but he learned to do so from the early Romantic interest in individualism, poetry and philosophy.  

Good cameos from the soloists who included Mark Stone as Morald, Lora's lover, Andrew Slater as Gernot  and Andrew Rees as Morald.  Emma Carrington sang Farzana and Eva Ganizate sang Zemina, Ada's fairy handmaidens who resolve the convoluted plot by showing Arindal how to save Ada.

I'd really like to hear Die Feen with period instruments, to release the rambunctious energy in the opera. It isn't a great opera by any means, but if all we ever listened to was "great", our culture would be impoverished. In this Wagner anniversary year, we don't necessarily need more re-runs of repertoire we already know. Despite the ropey orchestra and chorus, this Die Feen was worth hearing because it was done with such enthusiasm. Better that a million times than stilted, superficial performances that take themselves too seriously and teach us nothing. The Chelsea Opera Group are largely amateurs, so it's much more important that they're emotionally engaged and enthusiastic. Please also read Mark Berry's review, which will also appear in Opera Today.

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