Sommer’s “Rübezahl” a Lively Wagnerian Comedy

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SOMMER: Rübezahl / Magnus Piontek, bass (Rübezahl); Johannes Beck, baritone (Herr Buko); Anne Preuß, soprano (Gertrud); Hans-Georg Priese, tenor (Wido); Jueun Jeon, baritone (Bernhard Kraft); Kai Wefer, baritone (Otto Kettner); Alexander Voigt, tenor (Hieronymus Stäblein); Opera Chorus of the Thüringen Theater & Philharmonic; Altenburg-Gura Philharmonic Orchestra; Laurent Wagner, conductor / PanClassics PC 10367 (live: March 31-April 2, 2016)

Here we have a composer and an opera so obscure that even lifelong operaphiles (like myself) have never heard of either. Hans Sommer (1837-1922) was a part-time composer whose first influence was Robert Schumann, but later in life he was more strongly influenced by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, both of whom admired his work. Born Hans August Friedrich Zincken, the son of pioneer photographer Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtlander, he was initially drawn to mathematics but also took private music lessons. Through his mathematics teacher Julius Otto Grimm and lecturer Peter Gustav Dirichlet, who happened to be Felix Mendelssohn’s brother-in-law—i.e., Fanny Mendelssohn’s widower—young Hans made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. Although he became a mathematics lecturer just one year after graduation, he also stayed involved in music, founding the first Verein für Konzertmusik at Braunschweig in 1863. This was a concert festival that organized orchestral, chamber and choral concerts in which such stellar musicians as Clara Schumann and Hans von Bülow participated. Yet it wasn’t until 1881, by which time he was 44 years old, that he decided to work full time in music.

sommerSommer wrote a great deal of lieder when he was younger which is also rather forgotten today, yet one of his lieder collections led to his meeting Richard and Cosima Wagner in 1875. The Wagners were much taken with the young man and recommended him to Cosima’s father, Franz Liszt, for further study. In the 1890s he began writing operas, of which the first was Lorelei in 1891. The current work, Rübezahl und der Sackpfeifer von Neiße (to give it its full title) was premiered under Richard Strauss’ baton in 1904. So why isn’t he or this opera better known? For one thing, Sommer conspicuously avoided a publisher for his music. For whatever reason—caprice, paranoia or just laziness—he never bothered to get any of his works published. He also wasn’t particularly energetic about self-promotion, and without an agent no one else was going to stump for him either. Thus he just sort of faded into oblivion as time went on.

Rübezahl is based on a folk legend once well known in Germany, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. Rubezahl is a mountain spirit whose real name is Lord John who supposedly kidnapped a princess who liked turnips (rübe in German). To keep her company, Lord John magically turned the turnips into her friends and acquaintances, but since the turnips wilted in time so did the people he modeled them after. For the most part Lord John was amiable and taught people natural herbal medicine, but when people teased him by calling him “Rübezahl” he exacts a severe revenge.

The way Sommer structured his opera, Rübezahl plays an important role but is not the center of the plot, which revolves around the painter Wido, the coppersmith Kettner, the author Stäblein and several others. They tell Wido of the townspeople of Neiße who are suffering under the tyrannical regime of Buko. Although Wido is in love with Buko’s daughter, Gertrud, he decides to fight for the town. Gertrud, overhearing him, begs Wido to stay with her and stay out of the battle. In distress, Wido calls out for help from Rübezahl, who appears but chides Wido and then turns himself into the bagpipe player Ruprecht Zagel, forcing Wido to dance. This gives him the idea to take Rübezahl/Zagel with him when he attacks Buko’s fortress. Appearing in front of a crowd of villagers, Gertrud incurs their wrath as she is Buko’s daughter. Wido tries to quell the crowd to no avail, but suddenly Zagel plays his bagpipes and all are forced to dance.

bukoIn the third act, Buko swears revenge on those who attempt to topple him, but Gertrud, the only person who means anything to him, has suddenly come down with a horrible fever. Her maid, Brigitte, tells Buko that Gertrud talks in her fevered sleep about a man she loves. Buko orders a servant to summon Zagel to play the pipes for him, but unbeknownst to him the real Zagel refuses to appear and it is Rübezahl in disguise (once again) who takes his place. Rübezahl reveals his true identity, urging Buko to let Wido and Gertrud marry, but the enraged despot has the mountain spirit thrown into prison. Gertrud, somewhat recovered, confronts her father and admits her love for Wido, which ends with her father banishing her. A servant rushes in to report that the real Ruprecht Zagel has died.

rubezahl-gertrudIn the fourth and last act, Buko visits Zagel’s grave, the gravedigger explaining that sometimes Wido comes there to pray. When Wido arrives, he is arrested by guards and taken before Buko. Gertrud pleads for her lover, but is also arrested. Wido then summons Rübezahl, who arises from the grave along with all the dead spirits, who come to life and demand justice from Buko. When the clock strikes the hour, the tower collapses, Buko dies, and the wise man Theobald Kraft becomes the new ruler. Everyone still surviving then lives happily ever after, The End.

Typically of German composers of his era, and particularly those influenced by Wagner, Sommer tended to overwrite. To paraphrase one critic (whose name I forget) who said of Die Meistersinger that Wagbner poured out music in quarts and gallons when a few pint-pots would do, some of the same defects apply to Rübezahl, but to his credit Sommer kept things moving and blended in some modern harmonices borrowed from his new friend, Richard Strauss, with the many Wagnerisms (there’s a chorus in the first scene that sounds for all the world like Hagen summoning the vassals from Götterdämmerung). Also, like Meistersinger, the music of Rübezahl is consistently lively, happy and interesting. Sommer never really gets bogged down in the kind of rambling, slow monologues like Hans Sachs’ “Wie duftet doch der Flieder?,” although much of his writing, harmonically interesting and orchestrally colorful though it is, relies on the kind of sung recitatives that run all through Meistersinger.

But of course, in the case of an opera so completely new to us (neither the title nor the composer’s name can be found in James Anderson’s near-definitive Harper Guide to Opera and Operetta, one of my go-to books for virtually everything operatic), you miss something by not having any visuals other than the photos in the accompanying booklet. These suggest a very modern production with some bizarre features (the worst being the fact that, for no apparent reason, Rübezahl’s face is covered all over with lines and squiggles drawn with makeup pencil and Wido, naked from the waist up, is spattered with body paint) but I’m sure that seeing the opera onstage would compensate for some of the “what are they doing?” questions that pop in your head from time to time. Hans-Georg Priese, as Wido, has a nice, light tenor voice in the mold of David in Meistersinger, and his role in the opera is of a similar length. Once he enters, he almost never stops singing (as opposed to Walther, who gets lots of breaks). Anne Preuß, as Gertrud, has a wobbly, ugly voice with a strained top, which completely ruins any enjoyment of her scenes (and, for me, was the deciding factor not to keep this recording). The long Gertrud-Wido duet in the first act was, to my mind, too long, and the recitative-like quality of the music didn’t help.

Happily, Magnus Piontek as Rübezahl has an absolutely fabulous voice, one of those jolly-German bass voices with a bottomless pit in the low range. Every scene he is in benefits from not only his superb voice but his genial and very musical delivery. This may be the best moment in which to also praise our conductor, Laurent Wagner, who leads the performance with both vigor and and undercurrent of bubbling humor. He also brings out much orchestral detail, which is important in an opera with such rich scoring. Our bagpipe player, Ruprecht, also has a warm, jolly-sounding baritone voice, and his music is jolly as well. Johannes Beck, as Buko, has a darker-timbred voice that is steady with excellent diction. The orchestral music in the Act II scene, “Wido, bist du’s?,” sounds so much like Rosenkavalier that you’d think it was a case of Strauss influencing Sommer, but the latter opera was then seven years in the future.

Sommer reserves some of his greatest music for the last act, where his choral writing and dramatic effects with the orchestra and percussion provide some fascinating moments. In this act, too, baritone Beck’s voice takes on a darker hue, sounding for all the world like the late Gustav Neidlinger. Is he possibly an Alberich in the making? I wouldn’t be surprised.

All in all,  this is a fine performance of a real operatic rarity. It’s something different, it’s upbeat and well-crafted as music, and it appeals to those who prefer their operas tonal, although there isn’t really a single memorable tune in the whole thing—in fact, there’s nothing at all in this opera that resembles a real aria except for Gertrud’s “Ich suche das Leben.” Even Buko’s long Act III monologue, “Tag, Vetter Stadtvogt,” has less the feel of an aria about it than Donner’s scene in Das Rheingold before he bashes the anvil and creates thunder. This was evidently artistic choice on Sommer’s part; despite the length of the opera (157 minutes), he wanted it to move and move lightly, not get bogged down in tunes that plebian audiences would probably want encored. Is it a masterpiece on the level of Meistersinger? No, not really, but an occasional revival wouldn’t hurt.

I have only two complaints about this release, both related to the packaging. First of all, although it’s nice to have each act complete on a CD (CD 2 contains both Acts II and III), the opera could easily have been fit on two CDs instead of three. The third disc, which contains Act IV, is all of 37 minutes long. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, they really should have provided the libretto in both German and English instead of just the former. But what the heck, with so many Muslims in Germany nowadays they probably should have also printed it in Arabic. Other than that, a fascinating release.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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