Die Feen, Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2013

Wagner was 20 when he wrote this opera, and it was never performed in his lifetime. Seeing it in Fulham forty years ago I was amazed at its sophistication, and delighted with the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance last night.

The two main characters, Arindal and Ada have the same names as in Wagner’s first but uncompleted opera Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), yet the situation is quite different. The political union in that opera is replaced here by a love that is politically almost impossible since Arindal is a mortal prince, and Ada an immortal from the fairy world. She decides to give up her immortality, though knowing this is fraught with difficulty since the spirit world will strike at Arindal giving him ample reason to curse her. He does, and all seems lost. Yet true love triumphs, and the resulting redemption prefigures the world of Wagner’s later operas, with precognitive echoes of Tannhäuser in the music.

Conducting by Dominic Wheeler produced fine energetic playing from the orchestra, bringing this early Wagner very much to life. At one point in Act I he stopped the music to bring the soloists back into phase with the orchestra, but after that it all began to gel, with Danish tenor David Danholt singing strongly in the role of Arindal and New Zealand soprano Kirstin Sharpin singing beautifully as Ada. At the start of Act II the chorus laments the attacks of the enemy, but Elisabeth Meister as Arindal’s sister Lora chimed in strongly, and her solo expressing the brave hope of seeing her brother again drew spontaneous applause. This suddenly moved the performance to a higher level, and Ada’s big aria Weh’ mir … (Alas, the fearful hour draws nigh) confirmed it.

Excellent singing from the three male courtiers, Andrew Slater (bass), Andrew Rees (tenor) and particularly Mark Stone (baritone). Ben McAteer showed strong diction in the minor baritone role of Harald, Emma Carrington sang a lovely mezzo as one of Ada’s two fairy attendants, and Piotr Lempa was a wonderful bass in Act III as the voice of the magician Groma, and as the Fairy King who eventually bestows immortality on Arindal after he has released Ada from petrifaction.

Wagner never again had such a simple happy ending in his redemptive dramas, and discounted this early effort. But what a treat it was to hear such an excellent performance, and congratulations to Chelsea Opera Group and conductor Dominic Wheeler for putting it on.

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