S. WAGNER: Der Schmied von Marienburg (The Smith of Marienburg).
Karl Schneider (Muthart, the smith); Anne Wieben (Frau Madaldrut, his mother); Maacha Deubner (Wanhilt, his wife); Johannes Föttinger (Martin, his apprentice); Ralf Sauerbrey (Willekin, a town councilor); Rebecca Broberg (Friedelind, his daughter); Anton Leiß-Huber (Alfred, knight and Friedelind's lover); Marek Kalbus (Heinrich Reuß von Plauen, Grand Master of the Knights Templar); Christoph von Weitzel (Helwich von Hartenstein, Wanhilt's father and traitor); Johann Winzer (the lame wanderer). PPP Music Theatre Ensemble, Munich; Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra, Gdansk/Frank Strobel.
Marco Polo 8.225346-48 (3 CDs) (F) TT: 188:56

Three hours of my life I can never get back. Siegfried Wagner had all sorts of expectations heaped on him because he was Richard's son. He decided to become a composer and wrote a heap of operas, not one of which has held the stage. Like his father, he wrote his own libretti. One refrains from comparing him with Papa, but comparisons inevitably arise, particularly because he works in Richard's idiom -- curiously, not that of the late operas, but somewhere around Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. This opera, by the way, appeared in 1920.

Does this in itself matter? Not really. I don't believe in the commandment, Thou shalt be Modern. How well Siegfried uses his inheritance does. He does have dramatic instincts. At least his text defines characters. The music of this opera, however, comes across as one undifferentiated wash of sound. The 13-minute overture lacks any distinctive melodic material, although it's well-orchestrated. In fact, the same applies to the rest of the opera, as far as I'm concerned. The libretto contains its share of howlers, but so do a lot of Verdis, Puccinis, and R. Wagners, for that matter. More important, however, is the fact that a great opera composer practices dramatic economy. The plot overall can be convoluted, but the scene has got to move swiftly from point to point. The son simply has problems telling a good story. In most operas simple relationships draw characters together. For example, in Porgy and Bess, an opera with at least as many characters as Der Schmied, the operatic action gets defined by only four: Porgy, Crown, and Sportin' Life, as they vie for Bess. In Gianni Schicchi, the horde of Donati's relatives oppose Schicchi and the lovers. As you might gather from Wagner's dramatis personae, relationships among characters evade clear definition. There are at least three main plots. Most of the time, you have no idea who belongs to what. Friedelinde is Willekin's daughter, Alfred's love, and has something to do with the traitor Helwich. Wanhilt is Helwich's daughter and Muthart's wife. Add to this a plot about the Knights Templar vs. the Lizard League (no kidding!) and a lame wanderer -- shades of Wotan -- who's actually Mephistopheles in disguise and pretty soon memorizing the characters in War and Peace seems as easy as scratching your rump. Because of the plot heading off in so many directions, Siegfried's scenes stick at one level and barely move at all. I believe this also the fault of the music, which almost always drops dramatic turning points in favor of a one-sound-fits-all scene. I could recite the plot, but why bother when it makes no impact in performance?

The performance doesn't convince you that the opera has suffered from unjust neglect. It's a professional account (recorded live, like most obscure operas), but little more. I really complain only about the Alfred, Anton Leiß-Huber, whose thinnish voice drowns in the orchestra. All in all, not very exciting or interesting, except for students of decline.

(July 2010)