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Die Rheinnixen [New Sussex Opera]
15 Nov 2009

Die Rheinnixen by New Sussex Opera

London has long been spoiled in the operatic rarity department, thanks to companies like Opera Rara, Chelsea Opera Group and University College Opera populating various areas of the Venn diagram that is obscure repertoire.

Jacques Offenbach: Die Rheinnixen

Armgard: Kate Valentine; Hedwig: Anne-Marie Owens; Franz: David Curry; Conrad: Quentin Hayes; Gottfried: Daniel Grice; The Fairy: Birgit Rohowska. New Sussex Opera. Nicholas Jenkins, music director/ conductor.


Even so, there remain gaps that even these pioneers fail to reach — at which point, enter New Sussex Opera, in the first of what I hope will be a regular series of visits to the capital.

It is not widely known that Offenbach ever ventured into German grand opera, though a recording of Die Rheinnixen finally became available in 2005 thanks to the Orchestre de Montpelier (the disc was reviewed on this site). Though Rhine Fairies are most familiar in operatic terms because of Wagner, an audience at Offenbach’s opera would be forgiven for not realising there was any common ground. Offenbach’s Rhine Fairies are a hybrid of a number of different myths, from the Lorelei of popular legend to the jilted maiden-spirits of Giselle.

The English rendition of the libretto has its clumsy moments, and although some (such as switching between ‘thee’ and ‘you’ for the sake of a rhyme) can be put down to the translator, tenor Neil Jenkins, the majority of the unintentional humour is pretty inevitable. Cynics might say that singing in a foreign language covers a multitude of sins — and this is one of those operas where performance in translation serves to remove the only layer of disguise from the sheer ludicrousness of the plot. We have an amnesiac hero (thanks to a war-wound) who is shocked into recovering his senses on the spot, long-lost family relationships being revealed at every turn, and supernatural forces which overshadow the lives of the central characters. At the centre of it all is a saintly heroine so fragile that singing too strenuously almost kills her — an archetype which Offenbach took one step further in Hoffmann (and another metaphor for the dangerous power of female sexuality). That’s not the only thing which almost happens — a devastating Wagnerian ending is narrowly averted when, as the principal characters prepare to evade enemy capture by blowing up a strategically-placed ammunition dump with themselves in it, the Rhine Fairies lure the baddies over a precipice to their death and the goodies all breathe a sigh of relief and live happily ever after. The opera predates Götterdämmerung by more than a decade, but it’s difficult not to make the comparison.

A more than decent cast was assembled for the occasion: as the heroine, Armgard, Kate Valentine struck the balance of youth and maturity with a capable and sweet-edged lyric soprano and a firm and centred stage presence. As Franz, David Curry, made an ardent lover, though was occasionally a little pallid and strained in the top register, with a tendency to oversing. The more memorable performances were in the older roles, with Anne-Marie Owens supplying a dramatic centre in the pivotal role of Hedwig, Armgard’s mother whose past youthful exploits with the now enemy, Conrad von Wenckheim, bring about almost all of the plot’s developments. Quentin Hayes was a strong and masculine Conrad, and Daniel Grice was sympathetic in the role of Gottfried (here, in translation, Godfrey) — the true friend who never quite manages to get the girl.

The chorus sang idiomatically, and the smaller roles were taken more than ably by members of the amateur company. Conductor Nicholas Jenkins drew a clean and poised performance from the orchestra, and the score has plenty to recommend it. Offenbach inventively evokes a Germanic sound-world — Franz’s ethereal entrance-aria almost seems to prefigure the way Mahler used some of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn tunes in his early symphonies. The imagination in the rest of the score should not be underestimated, and would no doubt be easier to appreciate if Hoffmann had not remained so firmly in the repertoire while Die Rheinnixen was as good as lost for over a century. The composer reused so much of Rheinnixen in his later work that listening to it can be quite disorientating. It takes an open mind to think of the ‘Barcarolle’, and its introduction, were originally intended to depict not the hypnotic stasis of Venetian canals but the waters of a river which — thanks again to Wagner — most opera-lovers have come to associate with primeval E flat chords. The Rhine-Fairies themselves have the most obvious leitmotiv of the piece, a rising and falling chromatic triplet figure, first introduced in Armgard’s Act 1 aria.

New Sussex Opera has expressed a hope that some of its future productions — which, if an audience questionnaire included in the programme is anything to go by, might include Wagner’s Die Feen, Chabrier’s L’etoile and Gounod’s Mireille — might bring the company back to London. On this evidence, let’s hope so.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

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