Wednesday is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. Festivities have been in full swing for some time, with no end in sight. Jonas Kaufmann starred in the Metropolitan Opera's new "Parsifal" in February. The Bayreuth Festival has a new "Ring des Nibelungen"lined up for July. In April, Nicholas Spice, publisher of the London Review of Books, posed the question "Is Wagner bad for us?," answering no in 7,500 brilliant words. (May I mention my pre-emptive "Random Walk Through the Ring," posted at the rate of a tweet a day throughout 2012 @ring366?) Birthday candles blazing this week should rival the finale of "Götterdämmerung."
The least gratuitous observances of the great milestone may be scattered efforts to rehabilitate three early operas Wagner excluded from his canon. The convoluted fantasy "Die Feen" ("The Fairies," 1834), based on a play by Carlo Gozzi, follows in the romantic footsteps of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner. "Das Liebesverbot" ("The Ban on Love," 1836) translates Shakespeare's misanthropic comedy "Measure for Measure" into a kind of Teutonic bel canto. "Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen" ("Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes," 1840), after a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, takes up the epic mode of French grand opera.
Wagner's orphans have long led a shadow existence at the fringe of operatic life. But this year, the cities of Leipzig, where Wagner was born, and Bayreuth, where he built his shrine (the Festspielhaus) and was laid to rest (notwithstanding his death in Venice), have joined forces to showcase them as a series. And Deutsche Grammophon, conscientious to a fault, has included them in "Wagner: Complete Operas," a bicentennial bargain box of blue-chip reissues.
In the themes, characters and moods they explore, these early operas are prophetic, to an often uncanny degree. As always, Wagner served as his own librettist, so language that foreshadows that of the canon from "Der fliegende Holländer" (1841) to "Parsifal" (1882) should not surprise us. But unlike the canonical works, which have literary antecedents but somehow seem not to, the rejects also ring with revealing verbal echoes from masterpieces that fired Wagner's imagination ("The Magic Flute," "Fidelio," "Der Freischütz"). At the same time, the music of the juvenilia anticipates themes and moods—the sullen introspection, the ecstatic jubilation—that define the poles of Wagner's spiritual universe.
Linear thinkers may bridle at "Die Feen," but musically it's a magic-carpet ride. Defying fate, a mortal and a deathless fairy have married. The trials they endure are as arbitrary as they are unsurprising. The emotions flame high, the vocal lines soar and the spell of the tempestuous, star-spangled orchestral writing is hard to resist. A secondary knight errant and his sprightly lady love provide comic relief. Written when Wagner was 20, the opera went unperformed until after his death.
In "Das Liebesverbot" (composed, given just once, and withdrawn when Wagner was 22), a holier-than-thou German viceroy comes to stamp out sin in Palermo. His mask soon slips, exposing villainy of the deepest dye. Luck, pluck and virtue prevail, a death sentence is lifted, and the irrepressible carnival spirit that drives the overture triumphs anew. The viceroy prefigures the self-lacerating baritone heroes who were to become a Wagner specialty. Victorian that he was, Wagner could not help viewing Shakespeare's rowdy, devious Elizabethans in a moralistic but sentimental light, sometimes with disarming results. At moments of impetuous ardor, the gallants Claudio and Luzio, both tenors, seem ready to fly off into the sunset of Viennese operetta.
With "Rienzi," completed when Wagner was 27 and produced two years later, Wagner had the breakthrough he had long dreamt of. The libretto reads like the dramas of Friedrich Schiller, a poet in love with the categorical imperative. Medieval Rome totters at the brink of civil war. The idealist Rienzi, tribune of the people, reaches out to the predatory nobles. When they play him false, he refuses to quash them while he still can. Chaos descends.
In its pomp and pageantry, "Rienzi" aims to steal the thunder of Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose blockbusters for the Paris Opera (by this time "Robert le Diable" and "Les Huguenots") his contemporaries ranked with Michelangelo's "Last Judgment." Some critics have mocked "Rienzi" as Meyerbeer's best opera, some as his worst, proving between them that Wagner hit his target.
The orchestral and choral writing sweeps all before it; the overture and the preparations for battle build with awesome force. (A Bayreuth staging conducted by Christian Thielemann is scheduled for July; Philippe Jordan leads concert performances at the Salzburg Festival in August. And whether in the opera house or in concert, the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg could make history with this score. Valery Gergiev should take a look.) The characters are a vivid bunch. In an intriguing tip of the hat to a tradition on its way out, if not already dead and buried, the fiery nobleman Adriano is written for a woman. Rienzi's marathon role rivals or surpasses the notorious demands confronting the hero of "Siegfried." His august yet somber prayer in the final act has taken on a life of its own as a beloved recital piece. It's worth waiting for.
A production by Philipp Stölzl for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, filmed in 2010 and available on DVD from Arthaus, presents a riveting case for the opera on the stage. Merging images of Weimar decadence and totalitarianism make complete intuitive sense. Portly of frame but glistening with animal magnetism, the heldentenor Torsten Kerl revels in the challenges of the title role, eerily yet aptly channeling Hitler, Mussolini and Charlie Chaplin's Adenoid Hynkel.
For the record: "Rienzi" was said to be der Führer's favorite opera. He owned the manuscript, which he may have had with him in the bunker at the time of his suicide. No one has seen it since.