No mistake here – I am not talking about Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, but a forgotten work Strauss himself championed, which is Richard Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, staged by the first time in France in the Theatre du Châtelet.
The curious Wagnerian has probably got acquainted with the work in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s recording made live in Munich by Orfeo luxuriously cast with Linda Esther Gray, June Anderson, Cheryl Studer, John Alexander, Jan-Henrik Rootering et al. So has Marc Minkowski, who has dared not only to use his own Les Musiciens du Louvre but also to offer a far less excised edition. The immediately first instance of comparison between these conductors is that Minkowski’s orchestra cannot, for the obvious reasons, compete with the Bavarian State Orchestra’s lushness of sound. In order to create the necessary impact with a leaner orchestral sound, the French conductor proved to have the energy and pulse of very few conductors in order to keep his musicians playing as if their lives depended on that for more than three hours – his beat never failed, the orchestra’s attack was always strong, phrasing was always the leading element of the story telling. Even when one could rightly miss an orchestra like Sawallisch’s, Minkowski proved to be more coherent, more structured – every one of the three acts built inevitably to their powerful finali.
As a side comment, it is impossible not to notice that the score’s shining features are its ensembles with full chorus and soloists, something the composer would use more economically in his mature works. Even if the work is decidedly uneven, long stretches of music are irresistibly powerful, especially in act II, when one has a feeling that Bellini’s Norma, Weber’s Freischütz and Beethoven’s Fidelio have been mixed in a blender together with the house’s secret ingredient. I wonder what would have happened to the history of music if this work had been staged when it was composed. More seriously, what would have happened if Wagner had actually succeeded in the mainstream department? Would there be place for Tristan und Isolde if he had indeed reformed the genre of grand opéra? The truth is that no-other composer has a first stage work so brilliant as Wagner.
As in many early works by operatic composers, Die Feen suffers from its impossibly difficult casting. These roles are so difficult that you feel you owe these singers the cost of an extra ticket! In the Isolde-meets-Agathe role of Ada, Christiane Libor does not feature the show-stopping dramatic soprano of Linda Esther Gray (in her sadly short career), but the gentler sound of Minkowski’s orchestra allows her to exude far more vocal allure. She is the kind of singer who never ever produces an ugly sound even when things get really difficult. To say the truth, Ms. Libor has instantly made me a fan of hers. There has to be some problem in the world of opera if a singer of her outstanding level is not more famous. Her warm sizeable lyric soprano has something of the sexiness of the young pre-wobble Eva Marton blended with the coolness, elegance and poise of Margaret Price. I know this is not a good description – but that is the best way I can describe her. She also has a regal presence and, even if she is not really an electrifying actress, she is never less than convincing.
In spite of the performance’s seconda donna’s talents, the role of Lora was, in my opinion, miscast. It requires a Bellinian voice with a bright and spontaneous high register. Lina Tetruashvili is a reliable, velvety-toned soprano, but there is nothing Italianate about her voice – she was fazed about fast and high passages, her diction is not very clear and her German is not really convincing. It was no coincidence that Sawallisch invited June Anderson for his Munich performances.
William Joyner got the ingrateful task of singing the role of Arindal, a part that requires both heroic heft and Mozartian grace. He has no problem with offering dulcet head tones when required from him, but is tested by exposed dramatic high-lying passages. Considering the difficulties of the role, he proved to be unusually accurate and musicianly, but the cracked notes at the end of the evening only proved that this run of performances maybe was really demanding for him. Laurent Naouri not only is an excellent actor, but sang Gernot’s act 1 romanze in the grand manner. It is a pity that his bass was a bit off focus for the comic duet with Drolla in act 2. As Farzana and Zemina, both Salomé Haller and the beautiful Eduarda Melo left absolutely nothing to be desired. Minor roles were strongly cast.
I do not know if the pun was intended, but Emilio Sagi decided to stage the world of fairies with glittery colours, lots of pink tones and male choristers dressed in female clothes. To say the truth, mortals had also its share of glossy scenic elements, but, maybe because there is a war going on, there seems to be a limited share of spangle going on in Arindal’s kingdom. Sagi claims to find inspiration in Jeffrey Koons for his settings – a gigantic rose, a gigantic doll and a gigantic chandelier seemed to be it and, if the effect could be dramatic blank, it never failed to have an aesthetic impact. Justice be made, actors were extremely well directed and scenes never sag, keeping continuous interest, but a heroic opera needs a bit more craft. For instance, act III describes Arindal’s fighting earth spirits and bronze men, but this is all reduced to a curtain of blue strings and colourful boxes. One could thing that the budget was not enough for the three acts…!