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WAGNER: Die Feen

spacer T. Wilson, Rae; Fritz, Nagy; Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurter Oper- und Museumsorchester, Weigle. Text, no translation. OEHMS Classics OC 940


On the evidence of Die Feen, Richard Wagner at twenty was already a dramatist. His score is startling in its freedom from convention. The standard view of Wagner's development is that he moved from early conformity — adherence to the formulaic aria structure and tunefulness of Romantic-era opera — to a more fluid, open, unpredictable style more dependent on text. But this precocious 1833 work finds him already breaking traditional molds and — while skillful in details such as orchestration — not especially adept at, or interested in, sustained melody such as we find in the early 1840s in Holländer or even Rienzi.

He was also juggling multiple influences in Die Feen — Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and, not least, Heinrich August Marschner (1795–1861), a composer who affected both Wagner's choice of fantastical subject matter and his irregular, through-composed musical structure. While we recognize a cavatina here and a cabaletta there, as models or points of departure, their realization is intermittent, sometimes camouflaged and distorted. Weber-style climaxes with multiple scalar passages are broken by sustained, anarchic high notes that unsettle the harmony and the period style. Often the promise of song gives way to dramatic events and reactions; the goal seems always to be excitement. The prevailing vocal mode is accompanied recitative, restless in tonality and especially tempo, interrupted rather than supported by instrumental gestures, and somewhat overheated in manner even for this lurid libretto of repeated moral tests (anticipating Lohengrin) and revolving-door metamorphoses. The composer wrote his own text, based on plays by Carlo Gozzi.

But all is not sturm und drang. Another arresting innovation is the mostly skillful arioso style, blending recitative and melody. (There's even comic relief in the Act II reunion of two lovers long separated by war, a Papageno–Papagena style exercise.) Young Wagner also maintains interest with his instrumentation, often with flute coloring, which is sometimes said to derive from Marschner as well. The chorus gets opportunities for rousing finales (though never very extensive) and brief interaction, sometimes cross-cut by recitative. One fascinating moment comes in the elaborate a cappella passage in Act III for five principals and chorus, a fine example of vocal counterpoint that extends without accompaniment for thirty-six measures. Arindal's Act III music includes two winning solos, a brief scene of delusion ("Hallo! Lasst alle Hunde los") and then, following the sudden recovery of his senses, a lyrical appeal to the gods, with harp accompaniment, to spare Ada, the heroine, who has been (temporarily) turned to stone. 

One mark of continuity with the mature Wagner is the taxing vocal writing, which requires the services of a dramatic tenor and two stalwart sopranos of considerable range. (An often brilliant performance recorded under Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1983 had John Alexander, June Anderson and Cheryl Studer in the cast.) In this set's concert performance from Frankfurt, Burkhard Fritz as Arindal, barring some strain in his plea for Ada's life, is confident and flexible, while two American sopranos — Tamara Wilson and Brenda Rae — shine in the roles of the fairy queen Ada and the hero's sister Lora, both of whom are nearly always in crisis. Rae, as Lora, displays an especially distinctive tone and an assured delivery that proves riveting even in the most complex passages.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle leads an assertive, high-spirited performance, never slighting details such as the colorful instrumentation, with its interesting woodwind touches, and consistently allowing singers to make vivid dramatic points without losing momentum. spacer


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