Die Feen was Wagner's first completed opera, but remained unperformed in his lifetime. It has never established itself firmly in the operatic repertory although it receives occasional performances, on stage or in concert, most often in Germany. The opera is available in multiple versions on CD; however, it has never been available on video. Additionally, the overture has an independent life as an orchestral piece.
Although the music of Die Feen shows the influences of Carl Maria von Weber and other composers of the time, commentators have recognised embryonic features of the mature Wagnerian opera. The fantasy plot also anticipates themes such as redemption that were to reappear in his later works.
Die Feen was Wagner's first completed opera, composed in 1833, when he was 20 years old and working as a part-time chorus master in Würzburg. He gave it the description of Grosse romantische Oper (grand romantic opera). The year before he started composition, Wagner had abandoned his first attempt at writing an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding). There were a number of difficulties facing new German-language opera in the 1830s. First there was deemed to be a lack of good quality libretti to set. This may have influenced Wagner's decision to write the libretto for Die Feen himself. Second, there was a fear among the authorities in Germany and Austria that the performance of operas in German would attract nationalist and revolutionary followers. This would have added to the difficulties faced by a novice composer seeking an opportunity for his new opera to be performed.
Wagner revised the score of Die Feen in 1834, when he hoped for a production. Among the changes in the 1834 version was the rewriting from scratch of Ada's grand scene Weh' mir, so nah' die fürchterliche Stunde. However, it remained unperformed during his lifetime . Although Gozzi's La donna serpente was the source for Wagner's plot, he took the names of Die Feen's two principal characters, Ada and Arindal, from Die Hochzeit. The libretto also introduced a fantastic theme that was not in the original play. The libretto displays themes and patterns that were to recur in Wagner's more mature works. These include redemption, a mysterious stranger demanding that their lover not ask who they are, and long expository narratives.
Wagner personally gave the original manuscript of Die Feen to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The manuscript was later given as a gift to Adolf Hitler, and perished with him in flames in the Berlin bunker in the final days of World War II.
The English premiere was in Birmingham on May 17 1969 and the American premiere was at the New York City Opera on February 24, 1982. The opera continues to receive performances, particularly in Germany, for example a strongly cast concert performance in 2003, and two new productions opening within a week of each other in Germany in 2005.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, June 29, 1888|
(Conductor: Franz Fischer)
|The Fairy King||bass||Victorine Blank|
|Ada, a fairy||soprano||Lili Dressler|
|Zemina, a fairy||soprano||Pauline Sigler|
|Farzana, a fairy||soprano||Marie Sigler|
|Arindal, King of Tramond||tenor||Max Mikorey|
|Lora, his sister||soprano||Adrienne Weitz|
|Morald, her betrothed||baritone||Rudolf Fuchs|
|Gunther, a courtier from Tramond||tenor||Heinrich Herrmann|
|Gernot, Arindal's friend||bass||Gustav Siehr|
|Drolla, Lora's friend||soprano||Emilie Herzog|
|Harald, General of Groma the magician||bass||Kaspar Bausewein|
|A messenger||tenor||Max Schlosser|
|Voice of Groma the Magician||bass|
In a rocky wilderness Morald and Gunther meet Gernot. The former pair have been sent to find out what has happened to Arindal, who disappeared eight years ago. In the mean time his father, the king, has died from grief and the kingdom is being attacked by their enemy Murold who demands they surrender Arindal's sister Lora as his wife. Gernot relates how he and Arindal had hunted a beautiful doe to a river where it vanished. They heard a voice and jumped into the river where they found a beautiful woman in luxurious surroundings. She declared her love for Arindal and said they could stay together provided Arindal could go eight years without asking who she is. But the day before he did ask her, and Arindal and Gernot found themselves in the wilderness. Morald and Gunther depart before Arindal can know of their presence. Arindal appears and sings of his grief at the loss of Ada (Wo find ich dich, wo wird mir Trost?). Gernot tries to argue him round to believing that Ada is a sorceress who has abandoned him and that he should return to his kingdom. He sings of an evil witch who had disguised herself as a beautiful woman (War einst 'ne böse Hexe wohl). Gunther returns, disguised as a priest, and continues the attempt to persuade Arindal that he will be turned into a wild beast by the witch unless he returns at once; Morald similarly disguises himself as the ghost of Arindal's father and announces that his kingdom is threatened. Each disguise is magically destroyed just as Arindal is about to be convinced. However, the three are finally able to persuade him of his country's need. They agree to depart in the morning, although Arindal fears he will not see Ada again. When he is left alone he falls into an enchanted sleep.
The scene changes again to a fairy garden with a palace in the background out of which Ada comes. She sings of how she is willing to sacrifice her immortality and pay the price, however hard it is, necessary to win Arindal (Wie muss ich doch beklagen). Arindal awakens and declares his joy at seeing Ada again, but she announces that he will abandon her the next day. Gernot, Gunther and Morald arrive with companions to fetch Arindal. Those who have not seen her before are struck by Ada's beauty and fear Arindal will not come. A procession of fairies comes out of the palace and Zemina and Farzana tell Ada that her father has died and she is now queen. Ada tells Arindal that they must part now but she will see him tomorrow. She asks him to swear that whatever happens he will not curse her. He swears it even though she takes back her request. She expresses her fear that they will both go under as a result of his breaking the oath.
Ada is with Zemina and Farzana. She complains to them of how they heartlessly drive her on. They, however, express hope that she will renounce Arindal and remain immortal. She sings (Weh' mir, so nah' die fürchterlische Stunde) of her fears that Arindal will be cursed with madness and death, and she with being turned to a statue, but then expresses hope that Arindal's love will prove strong.
Gernot and Gunther talk of the terrible omens of the night and morning. Gernot asks Gunther if Drolla is still beautiful and still loyal to him. Gunther says he believes so but says Gernot should ask her himself as she is nearby. Gernot and Drolla test each other with stories of the many people who love them. Each becomes jealous before they realise that they both truly love each other.
Battle is raging outside. Arindal is anxious and refuses to lead the army out. Morald does so instead. Ada appears with her two children by Arindal. She seems to throw them into a fiery abyss. Meanwhile defeated warriors rush in. Ada refuses to console Arindal saying she has come to torment him instead. More defeated warriors arrive with reports that Morald has disappeared, captured or dead. Then Harald, who was sent to bring reinforcements, comes. He reports that his army was defeated by one led by Ada. Arindal curses her. Zemina and Farzana express joy that Ada will remain immortal. But she sorrowfully explains that the fairy-king had required as a condition of her renouncing her immortality, that she conceal her fairy background from Arindal for eight years and on the last day torment him as best she can. If he cursed her, she would remain immortal and be turned to stone for a hundred years while he would go mad and die. In truth, Morald is not dead, the army Harald led was full of traitors, and the children are still alive. Already Arindal can feel his sanity slipping.
Arindal is hallucinating that he is hunting a doe. As it is killed, he realises it is his wife. He continues to experience visions (Ich seh' den Himmel) before falling asleep. The voice of the petrified but weeping Ada is heard calling for him. Then the voice of Groma calls to him too. A sword, shield and lyre appear which Groma says can win Arindal victory and a greater reward. Zemina and Farzanal, enter. The former expresses her pity for Arindal while the latter says he deserves punishment for seeking to take Ada from them. They wake him and announce they will lead him to Ada to rescue her. He expresses his willingness to die for her. The two fairies hope this will actually happen.
They lead Arindal to a portal guarded by earth spirits. He is about to be defeated when the voice of Groma reminds him of the shield. The earth spirits disappear when he holds it up. The fairies express their surprise but are sure he will not triumph again. Meanwhile he thanks Groma's power. Next they encounter bronze men who guard a holy sanctuary. The shield fails Arindal but when Groma advises him to hold up the sword, the bronze men vanish. The fairies again express their surprise whilst Groma's spirits urge Arindal on. They now have reached a grotto where Ada has been turned to stone. The two fairies taunt Arindal with the threat that failure will mean that he too is turned to stone. But the voice of Groma urges him to play the lyre. When he does so (O ihr, des Busens Hochgefühle), Ada is freed from the stone. The two fairies realise that Groma is responsible.
The scene changes to the fairy king's throne room. He has decided to grant Arindal immortality. Ada invites him to rule her fairyland with her. Arindal grants his mortal kingdom to Morald and Lola. Everyone rejoices; even Zemina and Farzana are happy now that Ada remains immortal.
In The New York Times, critic John Rockwell acknowledges the presence of passages imitative of Weber and Marschner but says that there are "wonderfully original pasages too... Some of the instrumental writing is exquisite. And especially in the final two acts, there are ensembles and scenes of undeniable strength of personality. This is not some quaint antiquarian resurrection, but an opera that can work for today's audiences on stage." Blyth is less wholehearted in his support. In 1984, he wrote "The libretto is impossibly awkward, its language stilted, many of its musical structures ill-considered, but much is enjoyable in its own right as much as for the enjoyment in discovering seeds of future triumphs." But fifteen years later he was writing that the work's interest lay only in its evidence of the mature composer, "on its own account it’s a bit of a bore."
The Weberian overture in E Major, the key in which the opera begins and ends, includes many of the opera's principal themes. The work as a whole does not have the complex chains of melody and chromatic harmony that distinguished the composer's mature works. However, there is already a tendency in the opera to move away from a strict numbers form and to present the singers with long challenging passages. Recurring themes or simple leitmotifs associated with characters and situations already show a tendency towards something that Wagner would later use in a far more sophisticated manner in his mature works. Another anticipation of the composer's mature manner is how orchestra often carries the tune while vocal parts are declamatory. Of the various arias, Blyth picks out Ada's "huge Act 2 scene, which calls for a genuine dramatic soprano" noting that Birgit Nilsson had recorded it. He sees the ensembles as anticipating Tannhauser and Lohengrin but picks out "the delightful buffo duet for Gernot... and Drolla", saying it looks forward more to Das Liebesverbot "except that it surpasses in unassuming tunefulness anything in the following score".
Conductors who have recorded the overture include Francesco D'Avalos (Asv Living Era B0000030XD), Marek Janowski (Angel B00005UVAN), Franz Konwitschny (Archipel ARPCD0239), Alexander Rahbari (Naxos B0001Z65J4), Alois Springer (Vox B000001KAH) and Hans Swarowsky (Vox B000001KD3).