S. WAGNER Sonnenflammen ? Roger Epple, cond; Michaela Schneider (Irene); Eva Bátori (Iris); Richard Brunner (Fridolin); Roman Trekel (Alexios); Jürgen Trekel (Albrecht); Niels Giesecke (Gomella); Ulrike Schneider (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Eustachia); Ulrich Studer (Gottfried); Halle Opera House O & Ch ? cpo 777 097 (2 CDs: 132:50 &)
This recording jumps off to a thrilling start with one of Siegfried Wagner?s strongest overtures, bursting with sweeping gestures, and ending with a chain of rising cadences recalling his father?s Parsifal. Lyrical string and wind phrases are punctuated by folklike wind figures that might recall a Dvo?ák tone poem or the music of his teacher, Engelbert Humperdinck. As for the rest of the opera: it is hard to imagine a stronger case for a score many listeners will likely find problematically uneven, but rewarding. Soaringly tuneful from the moment the undulating horn melody first emerges from the brooding string chords of the opening, the opera belies the contention that Siegfried?s operas tend toward faceless mediocrity, displaying instead kaleidoscopically shifting moods and orchestral colors, adeptly captured here in an almost filmic spirit of montage. For once, a complete opera recording captures some of the promise of cpo?s highly regarded sequence of recordings of the composer?s orchestral music from the mid 1990s.
The story of Sonnenflammen dips liberally into the mash of religious symbology, folk legend, and crusader knights that was the composer?s habit. It begins as the Byzantine imperial court makes fun of the poverty of the citizenry. Emperor Alexios strips a beggar of his crutches, causing the beggar to curse Alexios and everyone with him, including the knight Fridolin, the one nobleman to come to his aid. The curse hovers heavily. A mere guest at court, Fridolin is himself tormented by his unrequited love for Iris. Iris?s father, the court jester Gomella, breaks a precious vial of the emperor?s rose water, escaping punishment only by promising to give Iris to the emperor, who wishes to father a new heir with her. Gomella arranges to substitute the prostitute Eunoë for her in the meetings with the emperor, but at the thought of sharing a precious jewel with the lowly girl in order to secure the disguise, Iris momentarily considers giving herself to the emperor, and is only held back by the suspicion that Fridolin?s judging eyes are watching her.
Meanwhile, the empress is heartbroken by the cavalier behavior of her husband, but is approached by Iris, who wishes to enlist her protection from the emperor and the jealous wrath of Fridolin. She longs for a knight who will come to smash the corruption of the court, and Fridolin is the last person she can imagine in that role. During a visit by the Venetian ambassador, Alexios mocks the official, goading him into a declaration of war and naming Fridolin his general. The emperor?s brother seizes the moment as a chance to plot his assassination, and when the attempt is foiled, Fridolin is caught rejoicing. The young knight feigns madness in order to escape punishment, but the emperor, unconvinced, orders his head shaved and forces him to act as a second jester alongside Gomella (thus removing him further from the dignity that Iris expects from her suitor).
The third act opens with the news that the empress has drowned herself and the crown prince, while Gomella and the assistant jester, Fridolin, set about the thankless task of amusing Alexios. Fridolin?s father arrives, but, shocked at his son?s humiliation and the fact that he has apparently abandoned his crusader?s vow, curses him. As the Western crusaders approach, the emperor arranges a feast at which all of their leaders are burned in effigy. The ghost of the empress appears to inform him he has been deceived and Fridolin commits suicide at the height of the celebration. Iris brings some of his shorn locks and places them on the head of the dying man, whom she now confesses to love. She passes out, the invaders set fire to the palace, but she is rescued before it falls into ruins.
This story would not have been out of place in an 18th-century opera seria, at least at the outset, but its basic sensual tawdriness intensifies across its three acts into a morass of compromised morality, missed opportunities, and weak wills. So, while Sonnenflammen is an exercise in neo-medieval escapism befitting the pre-Raphaelite spirit that seems to have spawned it, it inhabits a world of expressionist excess. Siegfried Wagner expert Peter Pachl, in a typically adventurous note that draws parallels with Umberto Eco?s novel Baudolino, which features some of the same characters, digs deeper, probing elaborate patterns of symbolism and suggesting that Sonnenflammen may be approached as a kind of negative ?sequel? to the composer?s fifth opera, Sternengebot (1906), because both are set in the crusades and both feature a knight abasing himself in order to earn the affection of a distant beloved. It also explores some of Siegfried Wagner?s favorite themes, including religious conflict and basic class fairness. It has seldom been emphasized, but one of the most curious aspects about Siegfried?s art is that it often proposes an empathetic vision of humanity starkly at odds with the racist jingoism that swirled around the circle of his mother and, later, his wife Winifred. The callous mockery of Alexios and his court are held up to savage criticism here. One suspects that this humanitarian vision, more than the composer?s homosexuality or the presumption of his attempting to succeed despite the shadow cast by his father, sparked the family embarrassment and suppression that led to professional obstacles during his life and the ban on his works enforced by his widow after his death.
For Sonnenflammen, cpo has marshaled one of the strongest casts to record one of this composer?s operas. The Iris, Hungarian soprano Eva Bátori, uses her bright-edged, muscular attack to galvanize the proceedings. With an effective Elsa voice, she easily projects through ensemble passages and loud orchestral clangor without losing focus.
Michaela Schneider?s Empress Irene blends well with Bátori in their scenes together, but displays a grainy quality and broad approach to pitch that, however, achieves greater focus and poignancy across the evening. Richard Brunner?s hard-edged tenor etches a strong and characterful Fridolin, with only occasional dryness betraying fatigue in the live concert broadcast; this is a young heroic tenor in the making. Vocally, Roman Trekel strikes the most convincing pose, lending his experience as a consistent and much-recorded Lieder singer to the despicable role of the emperor, modulating his tone to strike a balance between ardent lyricism and mockery.
More problematic is the crucial comic role of Iris?s father, the court jester Gomella, where Niels Giesecke forces his tone and his pitch through a role that would overstay its welcome with even better execution. Still, his clean diction offers an ideal approach to the wordy language of his role, tripping percussively off his tongue, phrased intelligently and with naturalness. Nor should one forget that the constant mockery of this role is not intended as mere comic relief, but as a thoroughgoing voice of bitter irony in a story whose romantic attractions are oppressively brutal. Gomella?s role is also the flashpoint of some of the most unique writing in the work. One scene early in the opera, in which Gomella expresses fear, is a set piece of masterful scoring, roiled by agitated gasps of muted brass.
The orchestral playing is committed and forceful, the Halle forces led ably and with an apt sense of forward propulsion and subtlety of phrasing by Roger Epple, the general music director of the Halle opera house for the past 10 years. Rhythmic shifts are deftly managed, and a sense of line emerges from Siegfried?s fidgety and short-breathed phrasing, so different from that of his father.
With the kind folks at Naxos no longer offering printed librettos with their own Siegfried Wagner series?instead making untranslated German librettos available online?we can thank cpo for its lavish packaging. In addition to a translated libretto, the booklet includes a helpful and witty if partisan essay by Peter Pachl. As with cpo?s other entry in the ongoing Siegfried Wagner retrospective, Die heilige Linde, this release is a gem. Urgently recommended to anyone remotely interested in the by-waters of early 20th-century Romanticism.
Sonnenflammen, Op. 8by Siegfried Wagner Performer:
Roman Trekel (Baritone),
Michaela Schuster (Soprano),
Richard Brünner (Tenor),
Jürgen Trekel (Bass),
Niels Giesecke (Tenor),
Eva Bátori (Soprano),
Ulrich Schneider (Alto),
Ulrich Studer (Baritone),
Ki-Hyun Park (Bass),
Gerd Vogel (Bass),
Anke Berndt (Soprano),
Olaf Schröder (Bass),
Jordi Molina (Tenor)
Halle Opera House Orchestra,
Halle Opera House Chorus
Period: 20th Century Written: 1918; Germany