*** Please note: while the booklet includes a synopsis and notes in English, the printed libretto is in German only. ***
Schwarzschwanenreich ("Realm of the Black Swan") is that dark chamber of the human psyche in which a woman is driven by guilt and shame to kill her own illegitimate child. She is execrated by a cruel, intolerant society, and even the love of a good man cannot save her from the flames, although it does reconcile her to her fate.
Siegfried Wagner had all the basic skills needed to conceive a viable operatic plot and put together a serviceable libretto. The plot can obviously be linked with that of many operas whose heroines are in some sense outsiders, from Euryanthe toRead more Elektra, and in 1910, when Schwarzschwanenreich was written, it could almost have been taken as a bid to wrest the high ground of expressionistic melodrama from such wild radicals as Schoenberg, not to mention the more conventional Zemlinsky or Schreker. Wresting the high ground was not Siegfried Wagner's way, however, and the leisurely lyricism of the opera's Prelude, harmonically constrained and rhythmically flaccid, gives notice that he prefers the happy endings of fairy tales to the harsh resolutions of tragedy. As with his first opera, Der Beirenhiriuter, the livelier scenes work best. There's a shameless rip-off of Hagen's vassalsummoning (GOtterddmmerung) in Act 1, and some strong moments of confrontation and recrimination later on, but even these tend to run out of steam, and attempts to modulate to a more elevated tone are at best bland and at worst banal.
Most of the Thuringian team throw themselves uninhibitedly into the piece. Kerstin Quandt is too restrained a villainess, but Beth Johanning and Walter Raffeiner, as the unfortunate heroine and her honest but ineffective lover, work through moments of vocal bluster to achieve some robustly ardent characterization. The recording strikes a reasonable balance between voices and orchestra, and the conductor sustains as high a level of dramatic engagement as the patchy score permits. The libretto included is in German only, but there is a detailed English synopsis.