Opera Now - Roderic Dunnett
New Sussex Opera staged their UK premiere of Offenbach's The Rhine Fairies in concert. They not only introduced a fresh masterpiece but their concert production was frankly as good as a staging. The large cast was steered through with class and finesse by young conductor Nicholas Jenkins - just the sort of talent a small ambitious company needs to help it progress.
Opera - Margaret Davies
Emerging from this revelatory concert performance of Offenbach’s grand romantic opera, it was unusual to have tunes from another and more familiar score by the same composer ringing in one’s head. This was the first time Die Rheinnixen had been given complete and in English in the UK. It was only seven years earlier that it was heard anywhere complete (in Montpellier) thanks to the musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck’s masterly reconstruction of the score from the heavily cut version of the 1864 premier, over an hour shorter than the substantial work heard here, and from missing sections of the autograph recovered from sources across the world. However, Offenbach recognized music that was worth recycling, which was how we caught pre-echoes of the Barcarolle and Drinking Song from his still-to-come Contes d’Hoffinann.
The two operas are tenuously linked: Hoffmann lives in a fantasy world of his romantic dreams, the Rheinnixen create a supernatural background to two interlocking love stories at the time of the Peasant Wars in the Rhineland. Conrad von Wenckheim is leading his army to attack Ebernburg Castle; when they arrive at a nearby farm run by Hedwig and her daughter Armgard, the latter recognizes among them her childhood sweetheart Franz, suffering from amnesia. Conrad insists that Armgard sings for the troops, but the effort causes the fragile girl to collapse in a coma, the shock of which restores Franz’s memory. Believing Armgard to be dead, the distraught Hedwig reveals the secret of her own past love affair with a soldier (none other than Conrad) which resulted in the birth of Armgard. Not till halfway through the opera do the Rheinnixen come into the action, singing their magic song, the original Barcarolle, with which they can lull humans into trances and lure them to their deaths. This is the fate of Conrad’s army, their leader having abandoned them to enjoy domestic bliss with his new-found family. It is an inglorious happy end, reached by a tortuous plot line, but there is enough music of powerful theatrical thrust to make the listening rewarding.
Kate Valentine brought a vibrant soprano crowned with a smooth coloratura technique to Armgard and gave the ‘Vaterlandslied’ due solemnity. David Curry sang Franz’s opening aria in a plangent tenor and his trance-like solo was nicely reflective; the lovers were finally reunited in an impassioned duet. Hedwig was strongly characterized by Anne-Marie Owens in her substantial, richly-coloured mezzo. Quentin Hayes gave Conrad’s Drinking Song a thrilling ring and sang with a leader’s authority. The whole cast, chorus and the Kent Sinfonia under the baton of Nicholas Jenkins performed with dedication. Neil Jenkins made the English translation.
Meticulous Performance - Words and Music
Not knowing what to expect from this revival begun in 2002 it was first of all comforting to hear the most famous of all ‘Barcarolles’ as the introductionary overture. Nicholas Jenkins was in charge of this meticulous performance that included fine solo work from all the principals and indeed the excellent men’s and ladies’ choruses. Why I single all this out is because I don’t think I have ever heard such attention to detail and verbal clarity so well expressed from all quarters.
The Palme d’Or I hand to contralto Anne-Marie Owens (Hedwig) who was in every way suited to her role, but it would be quite invidious to overlook any of the other principals who equally contributed to the sum total which was greater than the parts. In particular Kate Valentine as Armgard was outstanding in every way, with a beautiful voice which improved as the evening progressed, well suited to the part, as were the two comprimari soldiers. There were no weak points whatsoever. There were also amusing close parallels with G&S which gave a somewhat lighter twist to the complex drama. Policemen and bridesmaids came to mind without in any way demeaning Offenbach’s work.
The male chorus was clear and powerful as were the ladies, whether as villagers or fairies. The staging was nicely arranged so that the two groups were successfully separated and contrasted whereas the principals were enabled to enter from the sides at floor level. My only concern was that the soloists were asked to sing from behind the orchestra and elevated to carry their sound which, considering the size and quality of the very effective orchestral accompaniment meant their influence was seriously eroded at times. I suggest diffidently that it would have been more effective to have brought the soloists forward of the players.
Nevertheless this great and ‘new’ work of Offenbach’s proved to be a great success and I was quite ready to hear this superb rendition again and I will certainly mark it out. Neil Jenkins had done a most satisfactory translation for this occasion and the whole company proved they were able to bring this performance alive and make it real even in concert….I would like to make mention of Red Gray as the peasant girl who made such a nice little mark in the first act.
This unusual work was a great achievement for New Sussex Opera and Kent Sinfonia under the baton of Nicholas Jenkins which was as near faultless as one could desire.
Offenbach’s serious opera The Rhine Fairies received its English premiere in this run of performances by New Sussex Opera. The Cadogan Hall performance was the last of three, with the first two being in Lewes and Eastbourne.
The first ever night of The Rhine Fairies is widely held to have been a failure, but some digging around revealed that the opera was actually a great success. This was achieved against the odds - the leading tenor was busy going mad at the time, and large sections of the work had to be cut because it was impossible for him to learn the whole thing. But nevertheless it was very well-liked - and I have to say I really liked it too.
It is quite Wagnerian in tone, and regular readers of the blog (if there are any!) might remember that I’m really not a fan of Wagner - I don’t really care for his headache-inducing music, the silly plots which are explained numerous times, and the big, wobbly voices which are generally owned by big, wobbly singers. And as for the Leitmotifs - I’m here to enjoy the story, not to figure out a secret code. So on reading in the programme that The Rhine Maidens had leitmotifs, I rather wished I’d stayed at home.
Yet the leitmotifs were unnoticeable, and the opera had some very beautiful and atmospheric tunes. There were bits of music I heard more than once, and these might have been those leitmotif things, but luckily I managed to avoid attaching any particular meaning to them. If leitmotifs have to be there, they should be optional. The flutes, bassoons and harp had some particularly lovely moments, and the fairy tale quality that appeared occasionally suited the mythical nature of the eponymous Rhine Fairies…..
The singers and orchestra had you convinced that everything was real. Kate Valentine’s usually-light soprano sounds gorgeous even when it is stretched and wobbled into Wagner mode, and whilst I can’t help worrying about whether it is good for her voice, there is no question that she gave a great performance. Although it was technically a concert performance, all the singers were involved in the drama of the work, and none more so than Valentine. As she walked into place or hovered at the side of the stage waiting for her turn to come forward, she was completely in the character of Armgard.
David Curry took the role of Armgard’s lover Franz, the role formerly taken by the mad tenor. His voice is lighter than that of most Wagner tenors but it was a very beautiful sound and it penetrated the orchestra clearly. Daniel Grice - another very promising young singer - did well as Godfrey
Anne-Marie Owens is a fantastic performer and this certainly showed in her dramatic interpretation of the role of Hedwige, Armgard’s mother. Her singing was probably great too - she sounded like a typical Wagnerian contralto.
It was good to see Quentin Hayes in such a big and meaty role. He is a great comedian who has performed a number of small roles well for the Royal Opera, but he was also excellent in the important role of Conrad.
The smallest roles were taken by members of the New Sussex Opera Chorus. The one who impressed me in particular with her singing and interpretation of her role was Birgit Rohowska. She has a startlingly beautiful voice and sang with great poise. I would love to see her in a bigger role.
Cunning Little Vixen
Opera Today - Ruth Elleson
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. 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.
MusicWeb International John-Pierre Joyce
This concert performance, using a published version of the score by Jean-Christophe Keck for Boosey & Hawkes/Bote & Bock, reveals a mini masterwork that easily stands alongside the very best of Offenbach’s opéra bouffes and his final ‘grand opera’, The Tales of Hoffman. Indeed, The Rhine Fairies contains two significant numbers that later made their way into Hoffman - a drinking song in Act I, and a repeated elves’ song that first appears in the overture and was subsequently transformed into the famous Barcarolle.
An enthusiastic advocate of the opera, conductor Nicholas Jenkins seemed to revel in the melodic and harmonic sophistication of the score. Parts of it recall Weber, Mendelssohn and even Wagner (who detested both Offenbach and Die Rheinnixen), yet Offenbach’s lively rhythmic spontaneity were still clearly discernable. Some fine playing in the brass section emphasised the dramatic weight of the drama, although the odd wobble in the strings did occasionally disturb the ear.
Overall the cast was superb. Kate Valentine made a sympathetic and at times powerful Armgard, the young heroine caught up in the midst of conflict between rival Rhenish knights. She was matched by Anne-Marie Owens as her mother Hedwig. Enjoying a role of real depth, Owens displayed great almost Verdian stamina and emotional insight. Of the male leads, Quentin Hayes stood out as Conrad, the warring knight who eventually comes to accept the of value peace and family love after discovering Armgard to be his daughter. His firm tone and dramatic versatility probably had the edge over David Curry as Armgard’s long-lost lover, Franz. But there was nothing inferior about Curry’s lithe, expressive voice in a role that audibly prefigures Hoffman.
An Occasion not to be missed
The first UK performance of Offenbach’s romantic opera The Rhine Fairies was an occasion no music lover would want to miss, and New Sussex Opera, performing it at Lewes Town Hall, did its packed audience proud.
Originally preferred to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde for its opening performance in Vienna, 1864, Offenbach’s piece looks to the world of grand opera rather than forward to the musical experiments to come.
A lunatic plot, ending with an entire army stepping over a precipice under a fairy spell, does little to help. But the music is gorgeous, starting off with the familiar Barcarolle theme later used by the same composer in his Tales of Hoffmann and a favourite with barrel organs ever since.
An excellent cast sang out with power and enthusiasm, with Scottish born Kate Valentine, now a Lewes resident, outstanding in the role of Armgard. Justly hailed by the chorus as a nightingale on her first entrance, her singing was truly unforgettable, leading to a thunderous ovation at the end.
Anne-Marie Owens as her mother, David Curry as her brain damaged lover, Quentin Hayes as a cynical soldier and Daniel Grice as her spurned suitor all did sterling service, with the whole piece expertly held together by its conductor Nicholas Jenkins.
Nicholas Tucker - Sussex Express