S. WAGNER: Rainulf und Adelasia.
Hana Minutillo (Albriria); Roman Trekel (Osmund); Frank van Aken (Rainulf); Elisabeth M. Wachutka (Adelasia); Die Stuttgarter Choristen; Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Werner Andreas Albert.
CPO 777 017-2 (F) (3 CDs) (DDD) TT: 204:11

Being the son of a genius is rough enough, but the son of an icon of Western Civilization has it even rougher. Given the weight dumped on Siegfried Wagner's shoulders by simply the fact of his father, he bore it remarkably well. An active (as opposed to repressed) homosexual, he married mainly to avoid scandal and sired four kids, including the directors Wieland, Friedelind, and Wolfgang. Unfortunately, he married Winnifred. Sexual orientation wasn't their only point of disagreement. Winnifred became involved with the Nazis and a particular friend of Hitler. Indeed, for many years they were romantically linked. Siegfried, who died in 1930, kept the Nazis out of Bayreuth as long as he could. Friedelind, who idolized her father, fled Nazi Germany and became a dedicated anti-Fascist, although out of her concern for her family, she kept quiet during the war. She wrote a fine autobiography, Heritage of Fire.

Siegfried has a claim on history if only because he inspired his father to write one of his few mature non-operatic works, the ecstatic Siegfried-Idyl. He directed the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 to his death. He also went into the family business and composed operas. In fact, he wrote more operas than his father -- 18 in all, of which at least 8 have made it to CD -- but not one of them has entered the repertory. Friedelind always maintained that her father's titles were so ridiculous that they sank the operas. It seems a bit far-fetched. However, we now have the chance to sample Rainulf und Adelasia of 1922.

Like his daddy, Siegfried wrote his own libretti, and for the most part, Rainulf und Adelasia's, though based on the history of the Normans in Sicily, pretty much qualifies as a mess. It has more characters and plot lines than a Keystone Kops comedy. I would have welcomed a little humor, but Siegfried is too caught up in noble thoughts and deeds. The son is really no dramatist. As unintentionally hilarious as Papa Wagner can sometimes get, at least he has a strong sense of theater and of libretti that work. At his best, he has an appreciation of the roundedness of a character. Even something as tragic as Tristan has amusing moments. Die Walküre sustains an epic drama with essentially five characters, three of which have an act to themselves. The father creates conflict and tension with an economy the son lacks.

Throughout his life, however, Siegfried never got a truly fair shake from the critics, most of whom couldn't judge his work without reference to Richard, just as I've done above. Very few opera composers come up to Richard Wagner's level, but that doesn't necessarily make their work terrible or even ignorable. Siegfried is a personality in his own right and deserves that kind of regard.

Despite the son's persistence with opera, he's not really a dramatic composer at all, but a lyric one. The story, in its essentials and stripped of a few subplots, concerns a woman who proves the man for whom she harbors an unrequited love innocent of theft and murder. You can see the lack of dramatic focus in the very title. Adelasia is the heroine, but Rainulf is not the object of her affection. Rather, he is the villain whom she pretends to love so that she can get him to confess. Oy. Talk about indirection. Nevertheless, these are the two strongest characters in the opera, or at least the two who get most of the stage time. Rainulf, by far, counts as the most interesting: a villainous mama's boy of enormous wit, political skill, and as neurotic as a hamster on crack. Concentrating on Rainulf might have made for a drama as emphatic as Macbeth, but Wagner's attention seriously wanders by building up Adelasia to no good purpose. If he had portrayed Adelasia with anything near the psychology he gives to Rainulf (not to mention the crazy mother), he might have had a minor Tosca or Fidelio. Meanwhile, the other characters add up to little more than plot devices. In many ways, Rainulf and Adelasia seem to carry on different aspects of an interior monologue the composer holds with himself. I myself read it as a psychological drama of Siegfried Wagner's life: a pathological concern for succession, a fear of illegitimacy, a stifling of true love, and a dark, Freudian portrait of the relation between two sons -- one good, one bad -- and their crazy mother.

The music shows Richard Wagner's influence -- hardly a surprise, since Wagner affected many composers of Siegfried's generation. What does surprise, however, is that it's early Wagner, somewhere around Der fliegende Holländer. The liner notes refer to the influence of Meyerbeer grand opera, which I think legitimate, since Richard at that point takes the essential structure of Meyerbeer but disguises the separateness of the numbers with extended transitions. By the time we get to the Ring, this scheme has given way to a through-composed procedure, yielding a dramatic musical framework of enormous suppleness. Siegfried uses musical tags for characters and ideas but within the older approach. The thing is, it's 1922, for heaven's sake. Strauss's Elektra's about fifteen years past, Die Frau ohne Schatten (to name two relatively conservative operas) four. And yet both sound part of the new century. At this point, did anybody really need another Flying Dutchman?

Furthermore, it doesn't pack Dutchman's dramatic punch. The villainy operates at the Friml-operetta level, as does the heroism. Characters are forever explaining themselves, at great length, rather than revealing themselves through action. At one point, the villain gloats that "he who talks the biggest, gets away with the most," but, really, this is Siegfried Wagner's quasi-dramatic method. He loves to set Big Talk. The most convincing moments are the purely lyrical parts of the score -- Rainulf's cynical lightness early in the first act and his apostrophe to Greece at the end of the second. Even so, some of the music comes across as second-hand: the moments praising nature from Siegfried's "Forest Murmurs," and the praise of Hellas from Das Rheingold's Rhinemaidens.

This live performance tells you how good the opera is without convincing you that you've been missing another Don Giovanni all these years. It gives Siegfried Wagner a fair hearing. There are a few ensemble and intonation problems at the beginning, but these iron themselves out fairly quickly.

S.G.S. (August 2007)