Classical Lost and Found
, June 2009
The illegitimate son of Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Franz Liszt’s (1811–1886) daughter Cosima (1837–1930), Siegfried Wagner 1869–1930), whose birth inspired the ever popular Idyll, was a significant opera composer in his own right. Of the eighteen stage works he started, Der Schmied von Marienburg (1920), or The Blacksmith of Marienburg, was the last of the twelve he completed, and along with Der Bärenhäuter (1898) and Der Kobold (1903), one of his finest. Siegfried had an amazing gift for melody that was further refined and developed under his teacher Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), who had studied with his father. It certainly shows here, making this a must for all fans of German romantic opera.
Siegfried, like his father, wrote his own libretti, and the setting for this one is the town of Marienburg back in the Middle Ages. Known today as Malborg, or Malbork, it’s located in an area of Poland that was then called Prussia. There are seventeen singing roles, and the story is quite complex. Suffice it to say that it involves the social and political situation in Marienburg under the Teutonic Order of Knights shortly after their defeat in 1410 by the Poles. This was at the battle of Grunwald, or Tannenberg as it’s now called. You’ll find a detailed synopsis in the album booklet, and the complete libretto is available on-line. Incidentally, possible associations between the opera and the composer’s family life as well as the situation in Germany when he wrote it, abound (see the extensive notes).
In most past performances of this three act opera, the overture was cut. But fortunately that’s not the case here because it’s arguably one of Siegfried’s most outstanding, if not his best. It opens with a heroically flowing theme that may bring to mind the Rhein and Valhalla leitmotifs in Daddy’s Ring thing. The mood then becomes apprehensive, but slowly brightens as the overture ends triumphantly.
The first act begins with a thrilling tavern scene fraught with drama and intrigue, laying the foundation for what’s to come. The ensemble numbers that follow are equally engaging, and the act ends with a lovely “Kyrie eleison” as the mother of Muthart, who’s the blacksmith of the title, urges him to go to church with her.
The next act is an operatic jewel! The skill with which the composer spins out and interweaves the vocal lines certainly makes him the equal of his illustrious father. It’s a melodic treasure-trove where there’s never a monotonous moment. The final scene is magnificent and builds to an exciting concerted climax that must rank with the finest in romantic German opera. Meistersinger move over!
With a second act that good, one can only wonder how the composer can top it. But, he does with a finale in which the sheer beauty of the melodic line and dramatic intensity keep the listener on the edge of his chair! There are reminders of Wotan in the form of a character known as “The Lame Wanderer,” except here he’s the devil instead of a god. There’s a very amusing scene where he creates a human form out of clay, but can’t bring it to life. The accompanying music is demonically colorful, and the thought may cross your mind that the composer might have had the concept of a golem in the back of his mind. The opera ends with some of the most stirring music Siegfried ever wrote as the smithy goes up in flames, the knights defeat a band of enemy infiltrators, and the Grand Master of Marienburg apotheosizes Muthart, who’s been slain in the conflict.
The soloists here are members of the PPP Music Theater Ensemble of Munich, and what they lack in bravura they make up for in enthusiastic, totally committed performances. The same can be said for the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra of Gdansk under conductor Frank Strobel.
This is a live recording, and consequently there are isolated instances of stage as well as audience noise; however, there’s no applause until the very end. With a little known opera like this, we’re very lucky to have a modern day stereo recording of it, and most will find the music so engaging they’ll soon forget about any sonic distractions.