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Opera review: Wagner's 'Die Feen' by Lyric Opera of Los Angeles

June 15, 2010 | 12:18 pm
Feen

Should we be hearing what the creators themselves often disdainfully call “juvenilia”? Why not just keep the formative works under wraps and concentrate on the masterpieces?

Well, for one thing, there is the good old human quality known as curiosity that makes us want to hear more. Also the collector’s mentality kicks in – striving for the complete. And most important, maybe there is something to be learned from rummaging through a genius’ trunk in the attic, a key that unlocks secrets.

In that spirit, Ring Festival LA has been giving determined listeners an ultra-rare chance to hear two of the three early operas that Wagner didn’t want performed at his chosen theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.  USC Thornton Opera made an enthusiastic case for his Italianate comedy “Das Liebesverbot” in April.  And Lyric Opera of Los Angeles, back from a four-year hiatus, has emerged with what it claims to be the first fully staged U.S. performance of Wagner’s first completed opera, “Die Feen” – or “The Fairies” – at the Pasadena Playhouse.

It was a plucky venture, and an important one. That said – and with all due admiration for Lyric Opera’s sense of enterprise – one could only get a vague idea of “Die Feen’s” virtues from this production, on Friday's opening at least. (It continues with two more performances this week.)

Completed when Wagner was all of 20, this was his third attempt at writing an opera – and he raided the second attempt, an abandoned melodrama called “Die Hochzeit,” for the names of the leads, Ada (a fairy) and Arindal (her mortal husband). He tried to get “Die Feen” staged in Leipzig, failed, plunged right into “Liebesverbot,” and promptly lost interest in “Die Feen,” satisfied with conducting its impressive 12-minute overture at a concert.

Wagner never heard the opera, didn’t want to, and it wasn’t staged until 1888, five years after his death.  There is one solid professional live recording from Munich made during the Wagner centennial year 1983, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, but other than a couple of lesser sets, one a former bootleg, that’s about it.

Probably the main reason why few have touched “Die Feen” in the last century or so is that it doesn’t sound much like Wagner. He was still absorbing influences like a sponge – and this one found him
fixated mainly upon Weber. All of a sudden, for apparently no reason other than comic relief or to show off, he inserts a frivolously delightful Mozartean comic duet into Act 2 that is a mini-opera in itself.

The plot contains aspects of Orpheus and Eurydice (funny that another twist on that legend was playing in Long Beach that night); only this time, the husband’s prowess on the lyre succeeds in winning back his wife. Wagner’s musical invention is absorbing, even astonishing for a 20-year-old, but still looking for that spark of genius.

Yet the attentive Wagnerian will find plenty of pointers to the future. Already Wagner was thinking big – writing for outsized heldentenor and heldensoprano-scaled lead voices, with rich orchestrations and some themes that look ahead at least as far ahead as “Tannhäuser.” Already Wagner was writing his own librettos, setting up dramatic situations and cannily seeing them through, demonstrating his emerging understanding of human nature. And already, he establishes the overarching theme that resolves almost all of his operas – the redeeming power of love. The piece deserves to be heard – now and then.

The best voice in the cast was the full-blooded Ada of soprano VanNessa Hulme, and tenor Josh Shaw revealed a grasp of the heroic potential and temporary madness of Arindal, if not always the pitch;
the rest were all over the lot in quality. There were missed cues and stops and starts in Act I – an indication of not enough rehearsal time, although the performance did pull itself somewhat together by Act
III. In any case, the score needs more heft and forward direction than the scrappy chamber-sized ensemble under Robert Sage’s direction was able to provide.

Stage director Aleta Braxton sagely chose a literal approach to introduce this rarity; the fairy costumes were pretty and lighter-than-air.  Presumably, once the bugs in the production are ironed out – such as the roaming supertitles that finally planted themselves on the proper overhead screen in Act 3 –  it’ll look rather nice.

-- Richard S. Ginell

“Die Feen.” Lyric Opera of Los Angeles at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday. $25 to $80. (877) 565-2673 or www.lyricoperala.org. Running time: 3 hours, 35 minutes.

Photo: VanNessa Hulme surrounded by the fairies of "Die Feen." Credit: Gregory I. Allen

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