Fairy Story: Die Feen at Leipzig, with Broekhuizen (Farzana), Kaminskaite (Zemina) and Libor, far right
© Kirsten Nijhof 2013
Amid bicentenary homages to Richard Wagner worldwide, Leipzig reclaimed its roots as the composer's city of birth on February 16 by staging his first completed opera, Die Feen. The Saxon city's theater rejected the work in 1834 on the basis of, among other criteria, the composer's "thorough ignorance of harmony." The opera had its premiere in Munich posthumously in 1888, and though it is rarely performed — with one previous Leipzig performance sixty years later — it recently made its way to Paris and Frankfurt in the tow of celebrations. Leipzig Opera's cast will travel to an event hall in Bayreuth this July for a concert performance alongside Wagner's other two early operas, Rienzi and Das Liebesverbot.
The composer, following the development of his own music-drama aesthetic, chose to exclude these works from the Festspielhaus. Die Feen unfolds with audible influences from composers such as Weber, Marschner and Mozart, with only hints of the apocalyptic drama and revolutionary orchestration that took shape with Der Fliegende Holländer. The score is generally performed with cuts to prolonged recitatives and repeated material that do little to propel the action, while select arias and harmonic material foreshadow the demonic power of later works. The plot, despite some convoluted twists, also contains the germs of Lohengrin and Parsifal. Wagner based his libretto on an eighteenth-century play by Carlo Gozzi, La Donna Serpente, in which a fairy joins the mortal world of her beloved after he breaks a curse that has transformed her into a snake. In Die Feen, the fairy Ada is transformed into stone after Arindal, King of Tramond, inquires about her identity before eight years expire. After setting her free with a magician's lyre in a pre-Tannhäuser act of redemptive song, he is initiated into Ada's immortal realm.
A new production by Renaud Doucet (direction) and André Barbe (sets and costumes) evokes the conflict between humans and fairies by casting the entire story as a figment of Arindal's imagination. The opera revolves around his living room as he follows a CD booklet and fiddles with the volume of his stereo. The façade of a nineteenth-century building lifts to reveal the fairies' enchanted pastures, and a mystical willow tree droops above the sleeping King as Ada descends for her opening aria, "Wie muss ich doch beklagen," in which she laments the separation her immortality has wrought from Arindal. His palace in Act II takes on a cartoonish medieval aesthetic, with projections of fire onto the royal staircase when Ada throws their children into a flaming abyss (in fact a trial orchestrated by the Fairy King; they reappear unscathed in the final act). The directing team takes a subtly tongue-in-cheek approach to the magical opera that stays faithful to Wagner's libretto while allowing for room to laugh at its ambitions. The set rotates to reveal images of Wagner DVDs emblazoned on its side (perhaps a wink at bicentenary indulgence), and the Fairy King — descending from giant butterfly wings — dons Wagner's signature floppy hat.
The opera is as difficult to pull off musically as it is theatrically. Arnold Bezuyen struggled with the unwieldy writing for Arindal, pinching his high notes with an insecurity of tone that left listeners wondering if he would make it through the evening, but forte passages squeezed through with heldentenor power in the final act. His Ada, soprano Christiane Libor, was an indomitable presence, grounding the opera with a full-bodied timbre and Wagnerian pathos in both her arias — the second of which reveals a more mature compositional style. Milcho Borovinov, hard pressed with the baritonal demands of the servant Gernot, made the most of his gravelly bass in a cameo duet with his reunited lover Drolla, sung with charm by Jennifer Porto.
Seasoned baritone Detlef Roth inhabited the role of Morald, who inherits Arindal's earthly kingdom, with lush tone, and Eun Yee You gave a fine performance as his consort, Lora (Arindal's sister). Viktorija Kaminskaite and Jean Broekhuizen made for a lyrically polished pair as Ada's underling fairies, and Igor Durlovski brought a resonant bass to the Fairy King and the magician Groma. Guy Mannheim was a medieval caricature as the court vassal Gunther. The Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of Leipzig Opera music director and intendant Ulf Schirmer, endowed robust passages with its characteristically dark, rich tone but could have held back and provided more nuance in accompanying the singers. The house chorus delivered its numbers, among the score's greatest strengths, with admirable musicianship.
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