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.