Notes and Editorial Reviews
Hiroshi Kodama, cond; Dagmar Schellenberger (
); Rebecca Broberg (
); Thorsten Scharnke (
); Volker Horn (
); André Wenhold (
); Mechthild Georg (
); Adam Kruzel (
); Andreas Heichlinger (
); Christine Maier (
); André Wenhold (
); Joachim Hochmaier
Solingen-Remscheid SO; PPP Music Theater Ens( Munich
marco polo 8.225301 (3 CDs: 160:14)
With this release of the ninth opera by Richard Wagner?s son, an evolving survey of Siegfried Wagner?s stage works on the marco polo and cpo labels has reached roughly the halfway mark. The operas, 17 of which are listed in
, have not been recorded in sequence, but in the inevitably more random order in which they have been mounted on provincial European stages and in concert performance over the past 15 years.
The Heathen King
stands as one of the high points in this series, dramatically and musically. Lyrically powerful and at times compelling, it makes a strong argument for the rehabilitation of its composer, though the final pages devolve into empty sanctimony.
As the Great War and the cultural preoccupations of its era fade into the past along with the presumptions of musical high modernism, it has become easier to appreciate the music of Siegfried Wagner (1869?1930) on its own terms, rescued from under the shadow of a father whose example intimidated a generation of composers who were not even related to him. What emerges is an attractive and gently original voice, eclectic in the extreme, yet competently carving out a niche in the same genre of fantastical, fairy opera we associate with his teacher, Engelbert Humperdinck. Sitting comfortably between Humperdinck?s neo-
voice and a grasp of the textural possibilities and sudden dissonances of more modern contemporaries like Zemlinsky,
?s musical style is perfectly suited to the archaic, symbolic, and slightly wacky neo-medieval subject matter to which the composer was generally drawn.
Indeed, Siegfried came to represent the opposite of everything for which his father?and especially the racist, nationalist circle that gathered around Bayreuth after his father?s death?stood. PhiloSemitic in his personal life, in his operas?concerned with human understanding and religious tolerance?he redirected a musical and poetic language from the mythic grandiosity that characterized his father?s work toward a language emphasizing psychological and anthropological issues. The response from his family was predictable, preventing performances at all but the most provincial theaters, and suppressing his music entirely as soon as he passed from the scene. While some composers come by their obscurity through the inherent mediocrity of their art, Siegfried Wagner?s came from an outside interference that denied his music the light of day needed for critical assessment.
The action of
The Heathen King
is steeped in the 11th-century conflict between Christian Poles and the pagan Prussians they were in the process of conquering. Many of these Prussians converted, though these were known to have preserved aspects of their former religious rituals in secret observance. The central iconoclasm of this conversion was the destruction of the ?sacred oak? of Romowe; the heathens of the opera meet at this site in order to renew their ancient religion even as they practice Christianity in public. Later, a church and monastery were built there, but before Christianization it was the site of sacrifices (including human), where a sacred flame was kept burning. If it went out, the high priest, or Waidewut, would himself be immolated in that flame.
In the prologue, a mysterious priest observes the nightly gathering of the pagans, who are in the process of anointing a new king. As soon as the absent Radomar is named, the monk forces the gathering to adopt the Christian faith, and sets forth on his mission to keep Radomar from embracing his pagan legacy. Radomar himself is reluctant to do so, as is his war-trophy wife Ellida, who believes that the heathen crown is poisoned. She has also committed adultery, and Radomar demonstrates his gentle clemency by pardoning her. Enter the heathen siblings Krodo and Gelwa, the Telramund and Ortrud of this opera, who plot?using effigies and other ancient folk symbols?to unseat Ellida as queen and unmask the king of the heathens. Krodo confronts Radomar, but is killed by him and calls upon his brother, the old heathen priest, to avenge him.
Although both the Christian court and heathen court acquit Radomar of Krodo?s murder, Gelwa, who claims to love Radomar but is having a hard time showing it, continues to plot his downfall with the Polish general Jaroslaw by outing Radomar as the heathen king. During the festival of ?Kupalo,? a drunk conceals himself in the god?s statue and through some comic incidents winds up destroying the statue and putting out the sacred flame. A disembodied ?voice of woe? sounds out, and Jaromir forces Ellida to reveal the name of the king and demands that she surrender herself to him. When Radomar arrives, he wants to fight, but Ellida tells him to leave her to her unlucky fate; the ?voice of woe? sounds again from offstage.
The final act concerns a plot to ?purify? the pagan ritual by sacrificing the king-designate for his duplicitous embrace of the Christian faith. Wagner brings in all manner of ancient pagan symbology in his elaborate staging of this ritual. At the moment Radomar is to be crowned, Ellida sneaks in disguised as a pagan goddess, but is caught and stabbed to death, dying in her husband?s arms. The singer of woe appears, and the Waidewut drops dead suddenly when he mocks and grabs her. The opera steps wildly out of its realistic frame as the monk appears and does battle with the magical forest spirits. When he defeats them, the people kneel down in prayer, recommitting their loyalty to Christianity and to Radomar, who has been redeemed by the death of the sinner Ellida.
A common theme in Siegfried Wagner?s operas is the idea that religious belief, sensuality, forgiveness, revenge, and self-sacrifice are closely linked, and the resulting hot-house working out of the plot strands to their extreme conclusions?often with the support of colorful and luxuriant orchestral writing?has a quality both moving and disturbing. His musical language would have seemed fresh in 1913, when ?modernism? was still more clearly represented by Schreker and Strauss than by the murmurings of Schoenberg and his circle. However, the first performance of this opera was delayed until three years after the composer?s death. By 1934, when the opera received its first staging, Siegfried?s style seemed impossibly quaint, representative more of the stylistic complacence favored by the Nazi regime than of what it represented at the time of its composition.
The ?Waidelottin? Wera?s music is closest to that of Siegfried?s teacher, her main motive (which accompanies her every appearance) echoing the witch?s ?Hocus Pocus? song from
. Her extended scene in the third act also breaks open the mold of Ortrud. The first act offers a sampling of the composer?s range of color and gesture: craggy Brucknerian textures announce the orchestral prelude, scenes are driven by a building and layering of texture more reminiscent of Verdi than his father, while lush, Lisztian gestures characterize the leitmotivic fabric. It is as if fin-de-siècle chromaticism arrived by way of a detour to
. Melodies step into the footlights through lovely shaping and sequential repetition. The debt to his father emerges rather in countless tiny details of orchestration and texture, including underscoring moments of ?female perspective? with high woodwind colors (in the spirit of
), while the galumphing rhythms accompanying the arrival of girls and boys in act II recall
Hansel und Gretel
rather directly. It must also be admitted that the score suffers from numerous clichés of characterization, notably the anachronistic use of polonaise rhythms to represent the Poles.
Thorsten Scharnke?s throaty baritonal tenor frequently resides under pitch, and is overmatched by the rolling lyricism of Wagner?s writing of Radomar at full volume, though he possesses a clear, soulful piano. Playing opposite him as the forlorn Ellida is the first-rate and much-recorded dramatic soprano Dagmar Schellenberger, who displays a wide range of color and tone, and gutsy chest voice. Her riveting performance is reason enough to recommend this recording beyond the normal circle of Siegfried Wagner curiosity seekers. She is matched effectively by the Gelwa, soprano Rebecca Broberg, whose brighter (occasionally shrill) colors contrast with Schellenberger?s darker, creamier tone.
Krodo?s quasi-comical death scene, lacerated by jagged clarinet flourishes, is particularly effective, though much of André Wenhold?s singing is almost unlistenably unfocused. Particularly bizarre are the inarticulate mutterings of Hoggo (Joachim Höchmaier) during the ?Kupalofest.? Constant sequences on the main Kupalo theme remove the music from the realm of a truly unsettling witches? Sabbath (
Berlioz) into the more comfortable realm of fairy opera. In smaller roles, Adam Kruzel (Jaroslav) displays a satisfyingly resonant bass, while Christine Maier is a light-voiced but haunting ?voice of woe.?
Conductor Hiroshi Kodama keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, teasing out a sense of line and making the most of Siegfried?s frequent and portentous orchestral interludes; with titles like ?Faith,? they suggest abstract meditation rather than scene painting. These set pieces are characterized by rhythmic and phrasing difficulties that recall Dvo?ák?s tone poems, whose sound world they resemble. Wind-writing from his father?s
seems to have informed many passages from the second act and the memorably melancholy orchestral postlude.
Though it does not yield much that is memorable on first listen, the opera remains a ripe and exhausting experience, abounding in strong scenic and textural ideas: striding, throbbingly Brucknerian string lacerations in act I and a background tolling of church bells in counterpoint with fragments of the polonaise theme are just two that remained with me. Aside from some gritty string tone, the Solingen-Reimscheid Symphony Orchestra, an outfit I had never heard before, leaves few complaints in its handling of the score.
No text is provided with the CDs themselves, but buyers are directed to the Naxos Web site, where the German-only libretto may be viewed or downloaded (www.naxos.com/libretti/heidenkoenig.htm), though a detailed synopsis is keyed to individual scenes and CD tracks.
FANFARE: Christopher Williams