Monday 5 August 2019

More than just a stepping stone: Marschner's Hans Heiling in fine new recording from Essen

Marschner: Hans Heiling - Aalto Musiktheater, Essen - Oehms Classics
Heinrich Marschner Hans Heiling; Rebecca Teem, Heiko Trinsinger, Jessica Muirhead, Jeffrey Dowd, Aalto-Theater Essen, Frank Beerman; OEHMS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
One of the iconic pre-Wagner German Romantic operas gets a rare outing in a fine new live recording from Essen

Early 19th century German composers tried to create a distinctive native German opera tradition, often based on folk-song and folk-tales. Central to these was Carl Maria von Weber, but there were others, notably Heinrich Marschner. His operas represent an important stepping stone to those of Wagner, but late in his life he felt that he had failed. His opera Hans Heiling has appeared on disc before, but this new recording has a lot going for it.

This latest recording of Heinrich Marschner's Hans Heiling on OEHMS Classics is based on a staging at the Aalto-Musiktheater in Essen. Frank Beermann conducts the Essener Philharmoniker with Rebecca Teem as the Queen of the Earth Spirits, Heiko Trinsinger as Hans Heiling, Jessica Muirhead as Anna, Bettina Ranch as Gertrude and Jeffrey Dowd as Konrad.

One of the problems that composers like Weber and Marschner had was the difficulty in getting adequate librettos, Weber's successful opera Der Freischutz being followed by Euryanthe and Oberon both of which struggle because of their librettos. Marschner's advantage with Hans Heiling was that he had a very serviceable libretto by the actor and singer Eduard Devrient (in fact written with the hope that Felix Mendelssohn might set it!). German Romantic operas of the period often use the device of the contrast between the good hero and the bad, what Devrient created in Hans Heiling was a hero who is divided in himself.

The plot involves Hans Heiling who is a King of the Earth Spirits, but half-mortal. He is in love with a mortal woman, Anna, and as the opera progresses she realises that she is in love not with Hans but with his friend, the mortal man Konrad, and Heiling being an Earth Spirit is revealed and he threatens to wreak revenge. Also central to the plot is Heiling's mother, Queen of the Earth Spirits, who wishes him to return to the Earth Spirit kingdom, but who is sympathetic to his having falling in love with mortal, having once done so herself.

At first glance we can see obvious parallels with Wagner's plots, Heiling is Dutchman-like in his desire for redemption through a mortal woman, yet Lohengrin-like places restrictions on what Anna can ask him. And listening to the opera, whilst it is securely in the world of Weber's operas with set numbers and spoken dialogue, there are hints that musically Wagner listened to this music. And Hans Heiling certainly not just a series of arias. It opens with a long prologue set in the Earth Spirit kingdom which is a long and fluid ensemble, only then does the overture come. The opera itself, in three acts, has few arias with a significant amount of ensemble writing, even running to arioso and accompanied recitative, and each of the three act finales is a complex multi-section dramatic entity which makes clear Marschner's debt to Mozart. It makes you wish that Marschner had had the courage to move to something more through composed.

The recording is helped enormously by being drawn from live performances and all the cast give full engaged and more than creditable accounts of their roles. Heiko Trinsinger is impressive in the trickily high baritone title role, initially he seems to have something of a hard edge to his voice yet gradually relaxes into the role and is at times very ardent when addressing Anna. Trinsinger successfully brings out Heiling's troubled, conflicted nature. As his love-interest Anna is one of those rather passive women rather beloved of Romantic composers, yet Anna is strong enough to tell Heiling she prefers Konrad and to, ultimately, stand up to him. As Anna, Jessica Muirhead is impressive combining an essentially lyric voice with a nice degree of heft.

Jeffrey Dowd as Konrad rather gets the short straw, this is one of those roles which simply need to exists. Konrad's function is to be someone for Anna to love, and Dowd does not get much in the way of character to play with. He is suitably romantic at times, but Dowd's voice is also not without a little strain in the upper register.

Much of the drama comes from the two maturer women in the opera, Heiling's mother the Queen of the Earth Spirits and Anna's mother Gertrude. The Queen of the Earth Spirits is a terrific part, and Rebecca Teem makes something wonderfully dramatic of the role bringing out her own conflicted nature. That she pops up at key dramatic moments is only a bonus - Jessica Muirhead as Anna having given us an impressively large scale and highly expressive aria to open Act Two, is suddenly confronted with the appearance of the Queen of the Earth Spirits who reveals Heiling's true nature, in a terrific ensemble. As Anna's mother Gertrude, Bettina Ranch has some great moments too.

There is much to appreciate in the opera's orchestral writing, Marschner was no slouch when it came to Romantic expressivity in the orchestra, with moments like the lovely horn writing in the introduction to Act Three, as well has a great use of melodrama.

Whilst Marschner's music seems to have a clear debt to Weber, there are other composers one hears as well notably Mendelssohn (for whom Devrient originally wrote the libretto), but for English listeners the ghost of Arthur Sullivan makes an appearance too and the fact that Heiling is half spirit half mortal and in love with a mortal has more than a whiff of Iolanthe about it, suggesting that Sullivan and Gilbert both knew their Marschner!

The recording was made live at performances in February 2018, and whilst there are occasional placement oddities, this brings a real dramatic ping to the performance. This helps enormously in the spoken dialogue, which is clear and admirably dramatic. Without an English translation to the libretto (the booklet contains just an English synopsis but a complete German libretto), you do need to gain a lot from the cast's delivery of the dialogue. The CD booklet has a good article in English, and sufficient pictures from Essen's production, which seems to be pretty contemporary in setting, to make you intrigued by the production.

The previous major recording of the opera was a 2006 DVD from Cagliari which got somewhat mixed reviews. I really want to hear a good studio recording of this piece, and preferably with period instruments. But this set from Essen provides a fine modern version of the piece which makes it take off as drama.

Heinrich Marschner (1796-1861) - Hans Heiling (1833) [139.51]
Queen of the Earth Spirits - Rebecca Teem
Hans Heiling - Heiko Trinsinger
Anna - Jessica Muirhead
Gertrude - Bettina Ranch
Konrad - Jeffrey Dowd
Stephan - Karel Martin Ludvik
Niklas - Hans-Gunter Papirnik
Opernhor des Allto-Theaters
Bergwerksorchester Consolidation
Essener Philharmoniker
Frank Beerman (conductor)
Recorded live, 20-24 February 2018, Aalto-Musiktheater, Essen
OEHMS CLASSICS OC976 2CDs [65.42, 74.09]
Available from Amazon.

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