Die Feen of 1833, written when Wagner was only twenty, is the composer’s first completed opera. Never performed in his lifetime, it has remained something of a rarity ever since. This is partly because Wagner himself gave little impetus to his three early operas, even stipulating that Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi should never be staged at the Festspielhaus.
As well as attracting Ring Cycles in abundance, Wagner’s bicentenary this year is providing the opportunity for his lesser known works to be explored, and even Bayreuth has got around the composer’s dictate by performing his early operas elsewhere in the town. It still seems a shame, however, that we have to wait for anniversaries to occur before we are given the chance to experience live performances of such works. Last year the Royal Opera House staged Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831) for the first time since 1890, and, having now heard Die Feen live, I see no reason why it should be received any less well there.
Like the vast majority of Wagner’s operas (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg being the most prominent exception) Die Feen takes place in and between the three realms of nature, society and fairytale. It tells of the fairy Ada who falls in love with a mortal, Arindal. When, however, she seems to throw every obstacle in the way of him defending his kingdom (including killing his children, although she later restores them to life) he hastily curses her and she turns to stone. Arindal must then enlist the help of the magician Groma to overcome Earth Spirits and Metal Men in order to restore her to life and take her in his arms.
Before entering the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I was prepared for hearing the influence of Carl Maria vonWeber upon the work, as well as traces of Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin that were to come. By the end of the evening, however, there wasn’t a single subsequent opera that I hadn’t heard ‘represented’ at some point and in some way, while the number of influences upon the piece also seemed much wider. Moments in Act I had an Italianate feel, reminiscent of Il barbiere di Siviglia, although already Wagner’s ability to temper any lighter elements with the deepest of soul searching from characters was very much in evidence. Similarly, the romanze (narrative ballad) ‘Wer einst’ne böse Hex wohl’, which tells of a wicked witch who uses a magic ring to make herself beautiful, is cut from the same cloth as the ‘Chanson de Kleinzach’ from Les Contes de Hoffmann. Such ballads would presumably have appeared in hundreds of operas, many of which are never performed today, before either Wagner or Offenbach ever put pen to paper.
This concert performance from the Chelsea Opera Group, conducted by Dominic Wheeler, featured some stunning solo singing. As Ada, Kirstin Sharpin’s soprano voice sounded electric in the upper register as its sharp, resonant nature came to the fore in a performance characterised by precision, stamina and exceptional phrasing. As the fairies Farzana and Zemina, Emma Carrington’s rich mezzo-soprano contrasted well with Eva Ganizate’s soprano, a voice cut through with a shimmering vibrancy. Andrew Rees was smooth as Gunther, Andrew Slater effective as Gernot, while as Morald, Mark Stone’s baritone combined the depth of a bass with the finest characteristics of a tenor.
Besides Sharpin, however, the other truly standout performances came from Elizabeth Meister as Arindal’s sister whose beautifully developed voice made her aria ‘O müsst du, Hoffnung, schwinden’ a genuine highlight, and David Danholt as Arindal whose rounded tenor voice possessed a brilliantly striking edge. It is a shame that he made a few errors, which seemed to result from a lack of familiarity with the work, but any imperfections there were from either him, the orchestra or the chorus were highly forgiveable. The Chelsea Opera Group should be praised for bringing this work to public attention, and for delivering ninety per cent of this lengthy piece with exceptional polish.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.