I may have done things in reverse, but after all of the concerts this week in the Wartburg, Dresden, and Bayreuth, I've finally found myself in Leipzig, where Wagner was born 200 years ago, in a small row house in the old city center. Leipzig has worked overtime to play a leading role in this year's Wagner birthday celebrations, just as Salzburg did for Mozart in 2006 and Bonn will surely do for Beethoven in 2020. Mind you, none of these composers wanted anything to do with their hometowns once they reached adulthood, but the Germans have always attached a sort of mythic status to these birthplaces, as if they left behind some kind of magical vortex.
To be sure, Leipzig's place in music history has always been dominated by Bach, who spent the last 27 years of his life here as Cantor of St. Thomas Church, where he's buried directly in front of the main altar. By contrast, all that's left of Wagner's birthplace is a plaque attached to the outside of a shopping mall, where the teens and moms inside couldn't care less about who once lived there.
Wagner spent his formative years in Leipzig, where he enrolled at the University of Leipzig (where he persistently skipped class) and took private lessons with Thomaskcantor Theodore Weiling, who was so impressed with Wagner's ability that he refused any payment. It was also in Leipzig where Wagner would first hear Beethoven's symphonies (performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra), and where he heard a performance by the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, whose "profoundly human and ecstatic performance...kindled an almost demonic fire in me." He would later say that her performance inspired him to become an opera composer.
Most of what Wagner wrote in Leipzig was student work derivative of other composers, such as a series of piano sonatas based on Beethoven's. Wagner's first attempt at opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), was written when he was 19, but he destroyed the work after what's been described as "relentless criticism" by his sister Rosalie. On Thursday, students of the Mendelssohn Academy of Music gave a rare performance of the remaining fragment, accompanied by two pianos. It sounded to my ears like Mozart-lite, about as far from Wagner as you can imagine.
A few months later, Wagner took a position as chorus master in nearby Wurzburg where he made his second attempt at an opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), based on Carlo Gozzi's fairy tale La donna serpente. Unfortunately, Die Feen was never performed, but the full three-act score survives, and was given a revival last night by the Leipzig Opera, in a new co-production with the Bayreuth Festival. (The production will travel to Bayreuth in July, where it will be performed in the Stadthalle.) The production, by Renaud Doucet, switched back and forth between a contemporary living room and medieval settings meant to evoke the magical kingdom of Tramond. Indeed, the set piece for Act Two was clearly inspired by the Wartburg, bringing me back full circle to where I began this musical journey.
Wagner's music was clearly inspired by Mozart and Carl Maria von Weber, but there were some surprising premonitions of what was to come: throughout, I could hear bits of Tannhauser, Lohengrin, even the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger. Among the principals, Arnold Bezuyen gave a solid performance as King Arindal, while Christiane Libor—her red hair bringing to mind an early Brunnhilde—got the loudest ovations as Ada. In the pit, the Gewandhaus Orchestra—without question one of the great opera-symphonic orchestras in the world—gave an astonishing performance under their music director, Ulf Schirmer. For me, Die Feen ended up being far more than a curiosity; it was a revelation. Not bad for a 20-year-old.
Indeed, the Gewandhaus Orchestra is staying pretty busy this week. On Thursday night, they accompanied the Leipzig Ballet in new dances by Mario and Silvana Schoeder, set to Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder (with mezzo-soprano Katharin Goring) and the Overture and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, both of which sounded astonishing, even in comparison to Wednesday night's performance in Bayreuth. And, they'll be performing Rienzi and Die Fliegende Hollander before the weekend is out. Whew!
There are also lots of Wagner-related museum exhibits all around town, chief among them is the "Creator of Worlds" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, which traces various artistic representations of Wagnerian themes, such as the Rhine, forest, heroes, and the gods. It ends with an extraordinary audio-visual representation of The Ring by local artist rosalie, with chiseled male and female Gothic torsos glowing in front of a constantly shifting light display. It was just as mesmerizing as seeing The Ring in an opera house, maybe more so.
But perhaps the most heartwarming event I saw this week was Der Ring at the Gewandhaus' Mendelssohn Hall, which aimed to introduce young adults to the story of the Ring through giants cloaked in white gliding on casters, and a children's chorus dancing and singing their way joyously through the hall, from which all the seats had been removed. Directed and written by Philipp J. Neumann, with an original score by Berlin-based composer Lutz Glandien, based on Wagnerian motifs (played by—you guessed it—members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra), it addressed all of the themes Wagner himself dealt with in the Ring: greed, envy, and the lust for power. I can't think of a more unpretentious and accessible gateway to Wagner's marathon music-dramas—which might explain why there were far more adults than kids in the audience last night.
Pictures of Die Hochzeit here.
Pictures of Die Feen here.
Pictures of Ein Lebenstraum here.
Pictures of Der Ring here.