Die Feen

Wolfgang Sawallisch
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
25/26 July 1983
Herkulessaal and Bayerische Staatsoper München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Der FeenkönigKurt Moll
AdaLinda Esther Gray
FarzanaKari Lövaas
ZeminaKrisztina Laki
ArindalJohn Alexander
LoraJune Anderson
MoraldRoland Hermann
GernotJan-Hendrik Rootering
DrollaCheryl Studer
GuntherNorbert Orth
HaraldKarl Helm
Ein BoteFriedrich Lenz
Stimme GromasRoland Bracht

How narrow-minded can one be ? Very much so in the case of Richard Wagner who succeeded in not mentioning once the name of Verdi in all his writings. And is not his To mark the centenary of Wagner’s death last year, the Munich Festival offered performances of his three immature operas. I caugh the stagings of Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, but had to leave before the concert of Die Feen from which this recording derives. Having now heard it, with the other two works fresh in my memory, I am convinced that, in spite of the fact that it is the first of the three, it is the most unified in concept, simply because it adheres to one idiom whereas the other two pieces range so far afield and so tend to lose focus. The influence of Marschner and Weber is here paramount; there is no attempt to ape (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) Italian models as in Das Liebesverbot or strive for grand-opera pretentiousness as in Rienzi. The later works may contain individual passages that are more ‘advanced’ than anything in the youthfully imitative ways of Die Feen, but as entities they are less satisfying. Ronald Taylor in Richard Wagner: his life, art and thought (Elek: 1979), probably the best and most succinct introduction now available to the composer and his oeuvre (it has recently been issued in paperback), writes that Die Feen ”is based on the fairy-tale motif of the love between a mortal and a fairy, symbolizing the conflict between the finite world of man and the eternal world of the spirits, with the achievement of salvation through the power of love. These themes are dominant in Wagner’s work, and they are clearly stated in his first opera. It is as though Der fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde already lay in embryo in his mind, the mind of an unknown, part-time chorus master who was still not twenty-one, yet who could compose an entire three-act opera, words and music, fully orchestrated and ready for performance, in barely a year.” That could not be better expressed. The libretto is impossibly awkward, its language stilted, many of its musical structures ill-considered, but much is enjoyable in its own right as much as for the enjoyment in discovering seeds of future triumphs. Arindal, the tortured human hero married to the elusive but faithful fairy Ada (substantial enough to have borne him two children), has elements of Max and Adolar, but his long solos also look forward to the music of Rienzi, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, and need a tenor of similar heroic makeup. Ada herself, torn between the worlds of mortals and immortals, has her dilemma powerfully delinated in her huge Act 2 scene, which calls for a genuine dramatic soprano (Nilsson has recorded it—Philips 6500 294, 6/72). This shows Wagner already adept at adapting Weberian models to his own needs. And the various ensembles are quite obviously the forerunners of those in Tannhauser and Lohengrin, as is much of the orchestration and the feeling for the right timbre of instrumentation to conjure up a milieu or mood; in that sense, too, the score seems to me more typical than the two that were to follow it. The mood of Das Liebesverbot is suggested by the delightful buffo duet for Gernot, Arindal’s henchman, who has followed him to fairyland, and Drolla, his girl-friend, when they are reunited after eight years apart, except that it surpasses in unassuming tunefulness anything in the following score. The performance under Wolfgang Sawallisch, responsible for all the Wagner revivals in Munich, is full of brio and character, helping to make a strong case for the work with the help of the Bavarian Radio forces. A few moments of hesitant ensemble apart, this is an alert and involving performance. John Alexander, sounding like a lighter, somewhat more consistent Jon Vickers, is unworried by most of the vocal hurdles in Arindal’s part. Other Wagnerian tenors of the day (Kollo was busy with Rienzi, Hofmann and Jerusalem at Bayreuth) might have sounded more youthful; none would have bettered Alexander’s steadiness and sense of legato. Only his German vowels are sometimes problematical. So are those of Linda Esther Gray as Ada. As is her custom, she throws herself wholeheartedly into her part, and her forceful account of the scene already referred to draws enthusiastic applause from the audience. Against that must be set some singing that is rough and ungainly in tone, perhaps indicative of a tendency to force that may have caused the cancellations that have marred her career in recent months. June Anderson as Ada’s sister, Lora, and Roland Hermann; as her lover Morald, are both secure in voice. The strength and depth of bass singing at present in Germany is shown here. The young Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s round and flexible tone is well used as Gernot. As the dei ex machina, Roland Bracht, voice of the sorcerer Groma, who assists Arindal in his Zauberflote-like trials to re-win Ada, and Kurt Moll, in the tiny but important part of the Fairy King, are both admirable. So is the American soprano Cheryl Studer, one of Munich’s most impressive young singers, who is a charming Drolla. The recording is excellent, with few signs of audience participation, applause apart—and this is mostly at the end of acts. As it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever have another recording of this work, I am pleased this one gives it such a successful outing. Every Wagnerian will want it in his or her collection. (Alan Blyth)


It is a fairly safe assumption that very few amongst Wagner aficionados have ever become acquainted with Die Feen. The opera was written during the period of time that Wagner was living and working as a choirmaster in Wurzburg. At only 20 years old he was already showing great promise of having the ability to create such an enormous work. The opera was inspired by a Gozzi play, La Donna Serpente, which had been used as the basis of an opera more than once in the previous century. Wagner and his family tried numerous times to get his opera staged but it didn’t happen until 1883, after Wagner’s death. At some point he decided to present the autograph score for it along with those for Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi as a gift to King Ludwig II of Bavaria The manuscripts all seem to have been destroyed in Hitler’s bunker at the end of WW II.

The music of Die Feen blends the musical worlds of Beethoven with Weber, and a bit of Marschner added in. Wagner’s theatrical instincts of knowing when to allow the dramatic pace to relax and provide the singers and listeners with some repose would become much more developed in his future operas.

The live performance recorded here was put on as part of the Munich Opera Festival in 1983 and seems to have been very well received by the audience. The overture is an urgently dramatic orchestral tone poem which inspires an intense performance from Wolfgang Sawallisch and his Bavarian orchestra. Act One contains a lot more of similarly dramatic music with no let-up in the pacing; it becomes a bit wearing on listener and singers alike. Things improve hugely in Act Two which has generally the best music of the opera. The hero, Arindal, is sung by the clear and penetrating tenor voice of John Alexander. He has a very attractive, quavering sound which is always falls pleasantly on one’s ear. He is heard at his best in the Act 3 mad scene. Wagner’s heroine is the fairy princess Ada, one of those lung-busting soprano roles like Abigaille in Nabucco, and Leonore in Fidelio. I suspect, however that Ada is far more punishing on the soprano than either of those two roles. Here she is sung by the very capable Linda Esther Gray. She has a lot of music to sing and most of it is loud with plenty of rapid passagework to negotiate. Miss Gray succeeds admirably on all counts, and only once or twice does her volume seem to lack a solid core of tone to back it up. Her voice is large enough that it occasionally drowns out the tenor in a few places. Her biggest scene comes in Act 2 and she manages it splendidly.

Among the numerous secondary characters in this opera, Lora, Arindal’s sister, is sung by soprano June Anderson. She sings very sweetly on the whole but I note some tonal spread when she applies pressure on her voice in the upper register. Her fiancé, Morald, is impressively sung by bass Roland Hermann, his sound being both virile and elegant. Balancing this is the second comic couple, Drolla (Cheryl Studer) and Gernot (Jan-Hendrick Rootering): their Act 2 duet has more than a touch of Papagena and Papageno to it, and judging by the applause it was well appreciated by the audience. Miss Studer was still early in her career but among this cast she wins the vocal honours for demonstrating a personality in the voice. Mr Rootering is a solid bass with an attractive tone and he manages the comedic parts without going overboard. In Act 3 we become introduced to Groma the magician, a role sung entirely off stage. Roland Bracht, yet another bass, is impressive here which can’t be an easy achievement when one is not onstage.

In Act 3 we find the most beautiful piece in the entire opera, a chorale-like prayer in which Sawallisch leads his Bavarian forces and soloists in a spectacular example of the type of music in which time seems to stand still. The Bavarian Radio chorus are splendid throughout the recording, as is the orchestra. When the finale arrives we are introduced to Kurt Moll’s Fairy King. A star singer for such a small role, he really does make a marvellous impression with his finely focused sound. Throughout the recording Wolfgang Sawallisch shapes the musical phrases beautifully which shows the importance he placed on this music. Sawallisch makes numerous cuts to the score but I rather suspect that it is not necessarily an advantage to hear it absolutely complete.

The booklet contains a scholarly essay about the opera which focuses itself on the influence of Wagner’s family on the composition of this opera. A full libretto with translations is included.

Having now heard this, it I can appreciate the major steps forward Wagner took afterwards; even by the time he wrote such early works as Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi he had clearly already learned a lot from writing this opera.

Mike Parr | MARCH 19, 2024

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Media Type/Label
Orfeo, Premiere
Technical Specifications
576 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 688 MByte (flac)
Recorded at the Münchner Opernfestspiele 1983
Concert performances