18 Dec 2005

WAGNER, S.: Der Heidenkönig

What an unjust fate for an aspiring opera composer to be born the son of Richard Wagner! Imagine a child of Albert Einstein who dreams of greatness in science, or the son of William Shakespeare sitting down to sketch out his first sonnet. Doubtless you would have a nagging suspicion that you would likely never better your father’s titanic accomplishments.

No wonder, then, that Siegfried Wagner first decided on a career in architecture. Had he stuck with that resolve, he would likely have gotten a lot more professional respect than he did as a composer. Yet seventy-five years after the death of the junior Wagner, more and more of his operas are making their way into the catalogue—most recently his 1914 opus Der Heidenkönig (The Heathen King), a work that never made it to the stage during its composer’s lifetime.

Listening to Siegfried Wagner’s music, it isn’t hard to understand both phenomena: the lack of respect, and the growing interest. Of course it is unfair to compare Siegfried’s operas to Richard’s—as unfair as it is inevitable. There is much pleasure to be found in Der Heidenkönig. The younger Wagner, who studied with Engelbert Humperdinck, was clearly a well trained and sophisticated composer, despite an approach which must have been considered old fashioned for a composer born midway between Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg.

The opera’s musical texture is filled with many delightful details, both harmonic and orchestral. That being said, and despite the clear influence of father upon son, the music only very intermittently reminds one of Richard Wagner’s titanic music dramas. It is rather closer in spirit to the work of his teacher Humperdinck, though perhaps less melodically inspired. Missing from Heidenkönig are so many of the things we expect from a “Wagner opera”—the big musical ideas, the vast philosophical pretensions, the almost careless confidence in his own genius.

Richard Wagner’s operas rarely contain a great deal of action or incident, but rather move in a deliberate manner though the mental and spiritual states of their protagonists. Der Heidenkönig, based not on mythology, but rather on a rather strange and complex episode in central European history, is jam packed with plot detail. It concerns the resistance of the Wends (a slavic tribe that lived in Prussia) to forced Christianization at the hands of the Poles.

The hero of the story is Radomar, whom the Wends have chosen to be secretly crowned their new king (the “Heathen King” of the title). But both a Christian monk and Radomar’s wife Ellida warn him not to accept the crown, which she dreams is poisoned. Ellida had once been unfaithful to Radomar, and, as the story progresses, the Polish general Jaroslav blackmails her into betraying Radomar once again, both sexually, and by revealing the plans for the secret coronation. But in the end, in a page out of the Wagner family playbook, she sacrifices her life to redeem her love.

Overall, Christianity is presented as triumphant, as the traditionalist Wends are portrayed as lying schemers, who perpetuate belief in their gods through trickery. But the Christian Poles are hardly whitewashed either, as Jaroslav’s blackmail of Ellida demonstrates. The noble Radomar and his love Ellida stand between the two camps.

Sadly, it is very difficult to wholly judge Der Heidenkönig as drama, because Marco Polo has not included the libretto in its booklet. This is especially unfortunate, as I could find no evidence that the libretto is available elsewhere—at least in translation. Perhaps a better introduction for those curious about Siegfried Wagner’s operas would be Die heilige Linde on the wonderful CPO label, which makes a practice of including translated libretti in their operatic releases.

Both sets share the wonderful soprano Dagmar Schellenberger, who here sings the role of Ellida. I was not familiar with most of the other singers, such as tenor Thorsten Scharnke as the Radomar and baritone Adam Kruzel as Jaroslav. All aquit themselves satisfactorily. Hiroshi Kodama leads the Solingen-Remscheid Symphony Orchestra with conviction.

For fans of Siegfried Wagner, Der Heidenkönig will be a welcome and worthy addition to the growing list of the composer’s available titles. For others, who don’t know the music of the junior Wagner, they may find considerable enjoyment in this set, provided they approach it without the expectations generated by that famous surname.

Eric D. Anderson