Siegfried Wagner: Schwarzschwanenreich

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COMPOSERS: Siegfried Wagner
LABELS: Marco Polo
WORKS: Schwarzschwanenreich
PERFORMER: Beth Johanning, Walter Raffeiner, Kerstin Quandt; Chorus of the Thuringian Landestheater Rudolstadt, Thuringian SO Saalfeld-Rudolstadt/Konrad Bach
CATALOGUE NO: 8.223777/8 DDD
A pupil of Wagnerites Engelbert Humperdinck and Felix Mottl (not to mention his own father), Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930) composed nearly twenty operas of his own, inspired by German folklore, and written in an eclectic late-Romantic style. Some achieved temporary success; most went into the drawer in the hope that, as he himself put it, ‘when I am dead, someone will take them out again’.

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The time is ripe, and as the operas emerge from their lengthy obscurity they are proving of some interest. Schwarzschwanenreich (The Kingdom of the Black Swan, 1910), deals with illegitimacy and the cruelty of 17th-century witch hunts, but this performance, recorded live at the 1994 Rudolstadt Festival, makes it very difficult to judge the craftsmanlike and sometimes beautiful score.

The singers are provincial, most seriously Beth Johanning, who plays Linda, a declamatory role that demands a fine cantabile line nonetheless. Johanning fairly shouts her music in a large, uncontrolled voice. Hence the opera’s central character – a woman suspected because she is different, and ultimately prosecuted, tortured and executed as a child-killer – is robbed of its requisite sympathy and pathos. The three other protagonists are equivalently sung, reducing Wagner’s lengthy arioso and recitative passages to unnerving tedium.

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Under Konrad Bach a generally scrappy Thuringian SO makes precious little of Wagner’s rich instrumental palette. Marco Polo’s editorial support is another liability. The libretto, in German only, is supplemented by a highly detailed synopsis of the action, and some well-researched background essays, but their helpfulness is reduced by the translation into dense and often confusing English prose. In all, this is a package for die-hard historians and collectors of repertoire. Barrymore Laurence Scherer