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:
|| Eva Ganizate
Feenkoenig/Voice of Groma
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