In Wagner's Backyard, Early Works Get Their Due ; 3 Operas to Be Performed in Bayreuth -- but Not at Coveted Festspielhaus

By Loomis, George | International Herald Tribune, May 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Wagner's Backyard, Early Works Get Their Due ; 3 Operas to Be Performed in Bayreuth -- but Not at Coveted Festspielhaus


Loomis, George, International Herald Tribune


The composer's first three operas will be performed in Bayreuth this summer, but not at the coveted Festspielhaus.

Something curious will happen in Bayreuth this summer. Wagner's first three operas, which he dismissed artistically, will all be performed.

Wagner wrote the operas -- "Die Feen" (1833-34), "Das Liebesverbot" (1836) and "Rienzi" (1842) -- when he was in his 20s. Traditionalists might be relieved to learn that they will not be part of the main Bayreuth Festival, which continues in time-honored fashion by offering a new production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and revivals of three other works. Instead they will be given in prefestival performances organized by the festival in collaboration with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Oper Leipzig, which introduced the festivities in Leipzig in February with a new production of "Die Feen." Moreover, the Bayreuth performances will take place not in the hallowed Festspielhaus but in the 3,500-seat Oberfrankenhalle, which is often the site of rock concerts and other popular events. "Die Feen" will be given in concert form, the other two will be fully staged.

Wagner had the Festspielhaus theater built for performances of his mature masterpieces -- initially for the "Ring" cycle and later "Parsifal" -- and the first Bayreuth Festival opened its doors in 1876. After the composer's death in 1883, his widow, Cosima, took creative control of the festival, respecting his wish that "The Flying Dutchman" and works that came after it be performed there. Wagner's three early operas were left in the shadows.

Many ardent Wagnerians, who esteem the composer's visionary "music dramas" as being above mere operas, have willingly accepted Wagner's wish to brush his early operas aside. Frederic Spotts, the author of a useful history of the Bayreuth Festival, even called "Die Feen" and "Das Liebesverbot" "unperformable." But while the works may have their faults, unperformability is not among them.

There was a time when Wagner valued his early operas for having equipped him with a cosmopolitan musical outlook. "Die Feen" ("The Fairies") is a German Romantic opera in the tradition of Weber, and "Rienzi" is a French grand opera influenced by Meyerbeer. Wagner viewed "Das Liebesverbot" ("The Ban on Love"), which is based on Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," as an Italian comedy, and while that designation has its critics, he did shift its locale from Shakespeare's Vienna to Palermo.

It is probable that Wagner thought this cosmopolitanism would help him when he moved to Paris in 1839, with the ambition of conquering that city as his compatriot Meyerbeer -- whose musical training was similarly broad-based -- had done. Excerpts from "Das Liebesverbot" received an audition at the Paris Opera, leading the dramatist and librettist Eugene Scribe to call the music "charmant." But Wagner pinned his hopes on "Rienzi," which was, by his own description, a grand opera intended to "outdo all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance." Both works failed to draw the interest of the Paris Opera, contributing to a miserable two-and-a-half- years in the French capital for Wagner, who wrote articles and arranged works by others to make ends meet.

His bitterness not only turned him against France but also strengthened his anti-Semitism, as Meyerbeer, who was Jewish, symbolized a musical establishment that rejected him.

In fact, Meyerbeer did Wagner a number of favors, including recommending "Rienzi" to the Dresden Opera. Its triumphant premiere in 1842 led to Wagner's appointment as Kapellmeister in Dresden, and the opera went on to become one of Wagner's most successful. By contrast, "Die Feen" was never produced during Wagner's lifetime, and "Das Liebesverbot" received only a single, unfortunate production.

Having returned, like the prodigal son, to his homeland, Wagner began to market himself as the proponent of a new genre of German opera that stressed, as he wrote in 1845, what was "genuine and true. …

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