Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Jacques Offenbach:  Les Fées du Rhin (Die Rheinnixen)
11 Oct 2005

OFFENBACH: Les Fées du Rhin (Die Rheinnixen)

The genre of grand opera is not traditionally associated with Jacques Offenbach’s posthumous reputation. Yet as demonstrated by the performances documented in the present recording and essays in the accompanying notes, a revision of our assessment of Offenbach’s strengths is long overdue.

Jacques Offenbach: Les Fées du Rhin (Die Rheinnixen).

Regina Schörg, Nora Gubisch, Piotr Beczala, Dalibor Jenis, Peter Klaveness, Uwe Pepper, Gaële Le Roi. Orchestre National de Montpellier. Choeur de la Radio lettone. Friedemann Layer, cond. World Premiere recording based on new critical edition through Boosey & Hawkes / Bote & Bock.

Accord 472 920-2 [3CDs]

 

Composed originally for a Vienna premiere in 1864 the present version of Les Fées du Rhin, or Die Rheinnixen, was published in the last few years as part of the critical edition of the complete works of Offenbach through Boosey & Hawkes / Bote & Bock. In keeping with the earliest performances for Vienna, the production here featured is based on the German text, Die Rheinnixen. Those fairies or Nixen of the title, although foreshadowed early in the work, appear as a vocal soloist and chorus only in Act III, while the preceding dramatic development draws on fascinating political and territorial ideals of Offenbach’s own time. The topics here represented draw on varying aspects of Germanic mythology and literature and their reception by Offenbach and his contemporaries.

From the opening juncture of woodwinds and strings in the overture, the listener will recognize Offenbach’s famous bacarolle, which he used again later in Les Contes d’Hofmann. Here the piece is integrated into a fuller orchestration and varied such that the familiar melody recurs while functioning thematically as part of a larger composition. The sentiment emphasized in the overture, here played with lush fullness by the Orchestre National de Montpellier, leads directly into the first choral setting of Act I. Groups of peasants, returning from their work in the vineyards near Bingen on the Rhein, sing of the blessed fertility of their lands. One of the leaders from the region, Gottfried, directs the peasants in a strophic prayer of thanksgiving, as they approach the house of Hedwig. Here — while the workers pause from their labor — both Gottfried and Hedwig confirm the sufferings endured by many farms in their vicinity. Despite attempts to appear cheerful in her welcome, Hedwig confesses to Gottfried that she fears for the safety of their lands: hoards of rowdies and marauding troops now cross regularly through their regions. Hedwig is further troubled because of her daughter Armgard, whose melancholy seems to be endless. Hedwig declares that, in order to still her grief, Armgard “never stops singing.” Offenbach clearly saw the operatic advantage of this motif and conceived Armgard’s role as a lyric soprano with great facility for coloratura effect. In this performance Regina Schörg draws on floating tones and skillful decoration to create an exquisite and believable portrait of the saddened heroine. Her ballad on the saga of the fair young women who sang too much accelerates as she attempts to distract her own care in song. By refusing to leave off from singing, she gives her mother cause to worry that she too will succumb like the spirits described in her ballad. As emotions of the other characters are revealed, Gottfried declares his love for Armgard, an attachment supported by her mother Hedwig. Armgard is, however, unable to accept this devotion. The true cause for her melancholy surfaces in a trio sung by the principals at this early stage of the drama. In the roles of suitor and mother Peter Klaveness and Nora Gubisch offer a strong complement to the heroine, each delineating a part with nuance while blending into the larger ensemble of emotions. The actual beloved of Armgard, Franz, has joined a troop of soldiers and left indefinitely. Both Gottfried and Hedwig empathize with Armgard’s lament, Gottfried even abandoning his suit and offering selflessly to help bring Franz back to the countryside near Bingen. Such plans are cut short by the announcement that plundering mercenaries have overrun the adjacent fields near the Rhine.

Until the close of the first act the remaining dramatic conflicts and principal characters of the opera are introduced, their functions both reiterating and extending the earlier dramatic development. A band of invading troops is led by Conrad von Wenckheim who has received assurance of military support from the Landgraves of Hessen, Trier, and the Palatinate for his plan to storm the local Ebernburg palace. The baritone role of Conrad is taken by Dalibor Jenis, who modulates his approach to show, at first, great facility in the bawdy drinking song and later true menace in his instructions to the troops. Before the entrance of Franz a conversation among the soldiers reveals that he has lost his memory due to a blow to the head. Although he was born in the area, Franz appears on stage in a muddle, perceiving only glimmers of his previous life and commitments. In his aria expressing the struggle to sort out his emotions [“Überall Stille!” (“Silence everywhere!”)] Piotr Beczala as Franz directs his voice to reflect numerous corners of the psyche, in order to emphasize the pathos in his attempts at self-recognition. Here we can especially appreciate the intentions of the composer to use the voice as a medium to portray internal psychological tumult. Beczala’s performance of the isolated aria remains not only convincing, but also contrasts ideally in this recording with the surrounding pieces directed at more external topics. In the extensive finale to Act I Conrad torments the family when he discovers that his troops have arrived on the feast day of Armgard. A song is demanded as the price for sparing her life as Conrad brandishes his sword in a threatening gesture. When Schörg begins an effecting performance of Armgard’s “Du liebes Land / Du schönes, großes deutsches Vaterland!” [“You dear land / You fair, great German fatherland!”], she reacts with increasing coloratura frenzy as she sees Franz in the crowd of soldiers. Schörg emphasizes specific words to show Armgard’s attempts at awakening Franz into recognition of his surroundings. The use of song as a dramatic tool succeeds in her emotional outpouring, in which Schörg captures a wide spectrum of emotional nuance. Yet Franz becomes aware of his emotional and geographic past — at the close of Act I — only as Armgard falls into a swoon, having depleted her energies in fulfillment of Hedwig’s earlier warnings.

The predominant motif and eventual role of the elves or Nixen is developed gradually in Acts II and III of Offenbach’s score. All the characters from the preceding act converge through plan or coincidence at the Elfenstein (“Elfstone”) in the forest. In keeping with her understanding of the legend, Hedwig presumes that her daughter’s shadow will disappear after dark to join the elves at the magical stone; while muttering hints of a great personal secret, she rushes off with the hope of finding Armgard in the wood. Conrad and Franz, the latter still responding to a sense of military duty, force Gottfried to guide them toward the Ebernburg palace for a planned attack; Gottfried leads them astray to the Elfenstein. After the male principals comment on this scene during — in this performance — a carefully paced trio, the final words of Act II are left to Armgard: at nightfall she glides on her own, as if in a trance, toward the Elfenstein in the forest. The elves sing first through the medium of a solo fairy, then as a chorus, to set the mood at the start of Act III, where all will meet in the forest. The song of the fairy shimmers in the approach taken by Gaële Le Roi, whose admirable legato suggests the arching branches of trees surrounding the stone. Before Hedwig followed by Armgard arrive from opposite directions, an extended dance — termed by Offenbach “Ballet et grande valse” — is performed by the elves in the forest. Under Friedemann Layer’s direction the Orchestre gives a spirited account of this ballet in the tradition of grand opera, while integrating its rhythms into the surrounding composition. After conclusion of the dance the audience of this live performance gives a hearty ovation, the only such interruption occurring during an act in the entire recording. Focus shifts afterward to the humans once again as Armgard attempts to convince her mother to return home and not anticipate further contact unless divine will allows. The men arrive expecting to find the palace; instead, they realize that they have been duped by Gottfried who is fettered and held for execution on the following day. Throughout the finale of this act the voice of Nora Gubisch as Hedwig soars while urging the elves to act as a protective force. Although she senses now a familiar note in the voice of Conrad, his identity as a former lover and the unexpected father of Armgard is revealed only in the final, fourth act. For the present, Hedwig’s wishes are answered as Conrad is lulled into a trance by the song of the elves, while she calls for “Rache, Rache Dir!” (“Revenge, revenge upon you!”).

The final act contains two predominant duets sung by two pairs of lovers, present and past. In the first of these Armagard and Franz are reconciled in their love described as “Wonne” [“joy”]. Initially Franz threatens suicide until he sees the figure of Armgard whom he presumes to be a shade. She begs him to heed her declarations that their sufferings were only a dream. The successful transformation of their pain into renewed love is evoked through expressive piano singing by Schörg, capped by a dramatic trill at the close of their duet. The result of the second duet — that of the recognition between Hedwig and Conrad — is a shift in the latter’s plan to attack and destroy the Ebernburg. At a critical moment the Nixen execute a final benevolent gesture: they surround the unsuspecting troops and draw some, as if bewitched, into a ravine while the remaining soldiers disappear into a nearby valley. The palace, the citizens, and — as reiterated — the local fatherland are collectively saved.

In this outstanding, first modern performance of the complete Die Rheinnixen the blurring of contemporary historical reality and the world of Germanic mythology is mitigated through the medium of Offenbach’s music. As such, the project and research involved are also of interest to scholars of both Germanic literature and culture as well as to musicologists dealing with these topics represented in the broad range of nineteenth-century music and opera. The principal singers and chorus not only respond well to the numerous challenges of the score, they also interact ideally in a clear synthesis of music and drama. The recorded sound of this performance from July 2002 shows the finest technology in reproducing the music as performed with appropriately placed reaction from the audience. The accompanying, extensive notes by both the supervising editor of the Offenbach Critical Edition and a representative of Boosey & Hawkes / Bote & Bock are enlightening and add considerably to our understanding of Die Rheinnixen within the context of musical, cultural, and operatic literature of the 1860s. The essays clarify further a number of misunderstandings concerning the reception of Offenbach’s “Romantic grand opera” at its premiere and its continued success in those years afterward.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):