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Siegfried Wagner: Rainulf und Adelasia
08 Mar 2009

Siegfried Wagner: Rainulf und Adelasia

A medieval tale of ill-starred love, in three very long acts, with questions of loyalty to a king and one title character urging another to drink from a cup of poison...

Siegfried Wagner: Rainulf und Adelasia

Minutillo, Trekel, van Aken, Wachutka, Kuckler, Hawlata, Klepper, Janiszewski, Joswig, Lang, Stuttgarter Choristen, Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Werner Andreas Albert

CPO SWR 777 017-2 [3CDs]

$49.99  Click to buy

Siegfried Wagner’s Rainulf und Adelasia might seem to be a work inspired - if that’s the word - by the composer’s father’s Tristan und Isolde.

However, once past the exposition, Tristan und Isolde is a fairly simple narrative, with its great length given over to an expansive portrayal of pained eroticism and obsession. Rainulf und Adelasia, on the other hand, winds its way through a labyrinthine libretto. The synopsis in this CPO set’s booklet runs to three double-column pages, and would prove an exacting test of short-term memory, as few of the events as described seem to bear much relation to whatever transpired previously or what ensues.

Based - very distantly, one imagines - on histories of the Normans in Sicily, the story comes down to the wicked efforts of Rainulf to thwart the ambitions of his half-brother Osmund, who is set to marry one Beata. So who is Adelasia? Strangely, the synopsis doesn’t make the character’s relation to the others clear. However, Rainulf loves her, while she bears an unrequited love for Osmund. Rainulf resorts to the assistance of a witch to win Adelasia, but Adelasia is just too pure and good. When his scheme to discredit Osmund falls through, Rainulf kills himself. Osmund and Beata go off happily, while Adelasia wonders what happiness is.

The booklet contains three essays, all apparently written by Peter P. Pachl and translated by Susan Marie Praeder (they are credited after the final essay). The first relates the story of the opera’s composition in ample - even excessive - detail, though without making it clear whether the composer ever saw the work staged (apparently not). The second essay takes the form of a musical analysis, relating the action to various themes described by their keys and mystifying adjectives. A typical example: “In Rainulf’s monologue…a theme with a triplet upswing familiar from the prelude is heard as stupidity while Rainulf makes fun of the same.” As well he should. The title of the third essay should give a good sense of its contents: “Onomatopoetics and Onomatopoetry.” Here we learn how the character’s names bear insights, such as this: “The second part of Adelasia’s name also alludes to the Greek name »Aspasia« (»Welcome Woman«). The most famous bearer of this name was a Greek courtesan. Accordingly, Adelasia’s name may be interpreted as meaning »noble whore«.” Rainulf might object.

The sixteen-minute overture finds the younger Wagner emulating the aching chromaticism of his father’s score for Tristan und Isolde, but the body of the opera more frequently recalls music from earlier operas such as Lohengrin and Tannhaüser, with martial horn passages and striding themes in a more conservative tonality. From time to time, a certain orchestral touch, such as a wry comment from a solo violin, will suggest that Siegfried Wagner had felt the influence of his contemporary, Richard Strauss. Although it lacks originality, Rainulf und Adelasia still manages to present itself as a creditable composition - outdated in many respects, unmemorable in its themes, but consistently supportive of the drama, such as it is.

A close reading of the back cover reveals that this live recording originated in October 2003 at the Herbstilche Musiktage Bad Urach. Werner Andreas Albert leads a willing and secure reading from the Staatsphilarmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, though from time to time the string sound thins out, and the winds and brass have moments of sour intonation. Considering the long stretches of orchestral carpet Wagner lays out, that’s forgivable.

A strong cast gives the effort all they can. Frank von Aken sings Rainulf, a tenor role, with the right heroic heft and some dark shadings for the character’s malevolent side. Elisabeth M. Wachutka’s Adelasia lacks personality, but they may be a problem with the role, which is close to that of Elsa in Lohengrin in its patience-testing virtuous victim-hood. Roman Trekel brings some star-quality to the role of Osmund. The third act has some attractive music, slightly gypsy-influenced, for the witch Sigilgaita, and Margarete Joswig growls attractively in her big scene.

There are fans who only love the early Wagner, and for them, a Siegfried Wagner opera such as this one should be a very enjoyable listen. But curses to CPO for replacing the “und” in the title with an ugly ampersand on the front cover. Crass & tacky.

Chris Mullins

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