Die Feen

Opera in three acts by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Libretto by the composer after Carlo Gozzi’s La donna serpente
First performed in Munich on 29 June 1888

The cast includes:

Ada Kirstin Sharpin
Arindal David Danholt
Lora Elisabeth Meister
Gunther Andrew Rees
Zemina Eva Ganizate
Farzana Emma Carrington

Feenkoenig/Voice of Groma

Piotr Lempa
Drolla Michelle Walton
Morald Mark Stone
Gernot Andrew Slater

The early works of great composers can prove well worth hearing. Die Feen, composed in 1833 by a 20-year-old Wagner when he was chorus-master in Würzburg, was not performed until 1888, five years after his death. When Bernard Shaw heard the overture, he called it the work of ‘no crude amateur’, but distinguished by ‘youthful grace and fancy as well as earnestness’.

In Die Feen Wagner found his true path, one that ran from Der Freischütz, Fidelio, and Marschner’s Der Vampyr — though he strayed for a while (he said) when succumbing to the heady delights of Italian opera in the Das Liebesverbot, and then striving in Rienzi for a super-grand grand opera. Arindal, the hero of Die Feen, achieves immortality through his music-making — Wagner's addition to his source, Carlo Gozzi’s La donna serpente (as is the petrifaction, rather than reptilization, of the heroine). Refashioning Measure for Measure as Das Liebesverbot, he made Angelo a stern German voicing that Northern dilemma, intoxicated delight in Mediterranean frivolity mingled with reprobation. Rienzi is the drama of a grandiose visionary whose lofty dreams outsoar the comprehension of crowd. It needs no hindsight from the later masterpieces to discern in young Wagner the genius who gave musical and dramatic form to important concerns: love, sex, religion, politics. None of the three early operas is mere mindless entertainment. They share copiousness of musical invention. They have energy, vivacity, and brilliance.

But they are over-copious for practical use. None has ever been heard complete — except in the BBC’s 1976 broadcasts, when an uncut Die Feen ran to 3 hours 20 of music, Das Liebesverbot to 3 hours, and Rienzi to 4 hours 45! All stage or concert performances I’ve encountered have been much abridged. Yet every one of them has been musically enthralling.

Gozzi’s fiabe drammatiche have been a fruitful source for operas: Prokofiev’s Love For Three Oranges, Puccini's Turandot, Henze’s Stag King. The plot of Die Feen lies somewhere between The Magic Flute and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Gozzi’s name does not figure in the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence, but Strauss knew Die Feen well: he helped to prepare the Munich premiere, and he modelled his ‘petrifaction’ motif closely on Wagner's. Near the start we hear, as in Lohengrin, the injunction ‘Never ask me who I am’. In Lora, the second soprano, we meet the first of the six loving and beloved sisters who run through Wagner’s work. In Ada’s big aria we recognize features of not only of Leonore and Agathe but also the future Elisabeth. Arindal’s mad scene includes the fierce baying that Sieglinde later hears; his harp-accompanied lyre song shares a key with Walther’s Prize Song. But above all it’s in its own right, not as an exposition of influences and premonitions, that Die Feen proves so enjoyable and exciting.

© Andrew Porter 2013

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