Richard Wagner: Die Feen (Composed 1833-34)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 3 hours


I’ll admit that I’ve heard this opera four or five times before. In a perverse way I even actually like it. Sometimes when something is so clunky and terrible in a silly way you just can’t help but enjoy it. I also took the time to spell “fairy” in multiple ways at different points just for my own amusement. It isn’t a great opera, nor even really a good opera, but it does have historical value and isn’t totally worthless.

SETTING: Fairyland, a desert, and Arindal’s kingdom (non-magical). Arindal is married to Ada, who is a half-fairy/half-human (although he didn’t know this). When he asked about her origins after almost seven years of marriage (which have produced two children) he is instantly transported to a desert where his advisors have to find him. Meanwhile, Ada, whose father is actually KING of the Faeries, tries to figure out if she wants to be rendered mortal so the curse placed on Arindal for inquiring into her origins can be lifted. Her father has her test Arindal’s resolve, resulting in her being turned to stone but with the help of an omniscient warlock named Groma (who is apparently invisible) he rescues Ada and is granted immortality by his father-in-law.



0: The overture * is a bizarre, pseudo-Weberian structure which strangely at least somewhat successfully captures the work’s fantasy elements. A fairy march comes in (it will return at the end of Act 1). The piece includes most of the opera’s main themes, although not in leitmotif form: first (if underdeveloped at first, is Fairy, followed by Ada’s love, and finally Arindal. The main theme gets blasted frequently, by the end it becomes a bit annoying because it is so blatantly obvious that Wagner is trying to make you love it through all of the exposed gear shifts. The “Ada’s love” theme gets hammered to death as a crescendo for some reason. It ends abruptly after over twelve minutes.

ACT 1: (73 minutes)

Scene 1: A Garden in Fairyland.

15: Still more tranquil faery music before the feminine chorus of faeries comes on for an opener. The rest of the scene consists of a duet for two faeries (who explain most of the backstory) and more faery chorusing as they all vow to destroy Ada’s marriage in order to keep her immortal. All of it serviceable enough, but nothing remarkable.

Scene 2: A desert plain.

27: Suddenly, we switch gears to a copy-cat tune from Le nozze di Figaro (repeated) and the MEN come on searching for Arindal. These are Morald (the fiance of Arindal’s sister Lora), Gernot (a friend of Arindal), and the courtier Gunther. This occurs in a long passage of recitative. Arindal’s aria *  in which he mourns his loss of Ada to unknown supernatural forces and recounts even more backstory from his perspective (his first encounter with Ada was during a hunt when she was in the form of a doe, YES this screams of Die Frau ohne Schatten!). Now Wagner goes into a weird comic bit as the three men try to convince Arindal to come back to his kingdom with them starting with Gernot’s anti-witch/Ada aria which seems both out of place and musically forced (it also isn’t much of an aria and is rather ornery). Gunther comes on disguised as a priest (where do they get these costumes?) telling Arindal that Gernot’s witch will turn him into a wild beast. Morald disguises himself as the ghost of Arindal’s father, this is the least convincing and most idiotic of the deceptions. All of these tricks are revealed by magic to be fake but the three men do convince Arindal of the need to return home. Instead of there being a great “Homeward Bound” ensemble here, Arindal falls asleep.

Scene 3: Ada’s apartments in the Faery-world.

53, 60, 68, 70: Another orchestral scene transition (reprising fairy themes from the overture in a minor key) and we finally meet Ada in the first of three arias which basically save the opera from total oblivion ** as she contemplates giving up her immortality so she can remain Arindal’s wife and the curse may be lifted. Arindal arrives and a mild duet develops with a single good theme *. What follows is a ten minute act finale which focuses on that fairy march theme from the overture as the two faeries from the first scene come on and try their best to separate Ada from her mortal husband by declaring that her father (who is immortal) is dead, and so she is now Faerie Queen, prompting a serious little ensemble *. Ada extracts a promise from her husband that although he is about to be tested, that he will withstand whatever she causes him to go through and will not curse her. The stretta * has elements of the second act finale of Rienzi in it (Wagner apparently reused many finale structures in his first three operas).

ACT 2: Arindal’s capitol. (61 minutes)

0, 5: Wagner actually pulls off the fear of invasion for Arindal’s people rather well * (although the scene requires something more like the opening of Verdi’s Otello) and his sister Lora comes on a delivers a rather good aria * in which she recounts the prophecy of Groma the Warlock that if Arindal returns the kingdom will be saved.

15, 18: He does return prompting a happy if mild “Welcome Home” number and a trio between Lora, Arindal,  and Morald * which has a single catchy bit (repeated three times). At this point, there actually is a variant in the number order (sometimes you get Gernot and Drolla first, see below) but here Ada’s magnificently dramatic (and long) second aria ** (the heart of the act and based on themes from the overture) is placed. She worries that Ardinal will curse her for what she will seemingly do. It is probable that this is Wagner’s second version here, he revised the entire aria in 1834 in anticipation of a production that never came to be.

31: Now for some comic relief as Gernot and his lover Drolla question each other on their unfaithfulness and their ultimate love for each other in spite of this in an amusing buffo duettino * which proves that Wagner could at least pretend to have a sense of humour.

38, 42, 52, 58: The 22 minute long finale * is full of drama: Battle rages at the city gates, Arindal refuses to fight so Morald leads the troops instead. Ada comes on with her two children by Arindal and appears to throw them into a fiery abyss which magically pops up. Ardinal gets one good theme in an ensemble *. A LOT of plotting occurs, most of it bizarre: Ada tells Arindal that she has come to torment him, Morald disappears, Arindal’s forces led by one Harold are defeated by a force lead apparently by Ada. This finally causes Arindal to curse her * and although her fair folk friends rejoice that she will remain immortal she reveals that Arindal’s curse has terrible consequences: Having been ordered by her father to test Arindal on the last day of the seventh year of their marriage, Arindal’s failure (by cursing her) will result in him going mad (resulting in death) and she will be turned to stone for 100 years, after which she will however be immortal. The truth is revealed in a happy ensemble *: Morald is not dead, Harold’s force was full of traitors destroyed by Ada, and the children are both still alive. However, Ardinal, very understandably, feels his sanity slipping away, and Ada is rendered petrified in one of the oddest act ends in all opera.

ACT 3 (46 minutes)

Scene 1: A hall in the castle.

0: The act opens with mild choral rejoicing * as Morald and Lora are hailed as King and Queen (Arindal having abducated power because of his apparent mental illness). Neither of the new monarchs is happy, however, because well, Arindal has gone insane. All pray for the lifting of the curse. Ada’s love theme creeps in at the end.

10: Arindal arrives in a mad fury because he is insane and fantasizes about hunting and killing a doe who turns out to be Ada. This is the third great aria in the opera **, after which he falls asleep.

29: Now we get a lot of weak plot forwarding music for ten minutes as Ada (still in petrified state) weeps for Arindal and Groma is then heard calling Ardinal to save the day with a magic sword, shield, and lyre which are provided for him at this moment by Groma’s magic. The two faeries who hated Ardinal return and although one of them still hates on him for taking Ada from the faerie-folk, the other takes pity on Ardinal and they wake him and tell him that they will lead him to victory and free Ada. He says he will die for Ada, and both of the faeries are rather hopeful that he does *.

Scene 2: A faery world.

35, 38: This scene is a bit of a con: the two faeries lead Arindal to a magical chamber controlled by earth spirits who make Gluck’s Furies seem caffeinated. Groma tells Arindal to raise his shield. This causes him to defeat the spirits and he thanks Groma as the faeries feel certain he will not succeed again. They then encounter Bronze Men and the shield doesn’t work, Groma tells him to use the sword and they fall to him immediately. Again the faeries don’t believe he will succeed again and he thanks Groma’s magic rather lyrically *. Finally they find Stone-Ada and the Faeries warn that failure here will result in Arindal himself being turned to stone. Groma tells him to take up the lyre and sing, his song is the last aria in the opera *. Ada is freed from the stone (more Faerie theme). The faeries realize that Groma’s magic has triumphed over them.

Scene 3: Before the Throne of the Faerie King.

41, 45: The last six minutes of the opera * consists of the Faerie King’s decree that his son-in-law is granted immortality. Ada invites him to join him in ruling her faerie kingdom; Arindal gives his kingdom to Lora and Morald. Everyone rejoices, even the two Faeries who are thrilled that Ada remains immortal. There is one more reprisal (in choral form) of the Faerie theme in a grand final ensemble *.



Notice how few of the numbers in this opera end with normal battery chords. The scene transitions in act 1 are jarring, but not because of the usual chord finales but rather symphonic changes in mood. The second act has no changes in scenery, but Ada’s aria and the Gernot-Drolla comic duet do end with weak battery chord finishes. The third act also has scene changes and they are done in the same way as the in the first act, without any battery chords and seamless, to the point that the scenes crowd into each other.  I mention this because it was the only feature of early 19th century music Wagner never seemed to satisfactorily master, which is odd because even I can write battery chords, and this is also theoretically the reason why Wagner went down the path of inventing “Music drama”. He simply could not write effective musical numbers, nor obvious scene endings, so he went all symphonic on us and invented Tristan, Der Ring, and Parsifal. 

Die Feen is a weak score propping up a weak, confusing/self-confused, and often contradictory plot derived apparently from an 18th century Carlo Gozzi play entitled La donna serpente. I refuses to make allowances for the story because it is far too cluttered, illogical, and contradictory. The score is clunky, endings can be very abrupt, often illogical, and attempts at seamlessness just make everything feel rushed when in fact the opera is extremely long. What saves it for complete oblivion is Wagner’s uncanny ability to produce a series of good arias for Ada and Arindal. There are five of these with Ada getting two great arias in the first two acts and Ardinal getting one great aria in the third act and two lesser arias in the first and third acts. Lora gets one aria at the start of the second act which deserves an honourable mention. The rest consists of mild comic numbers (the Drolla-Gernot duet), ornery stuff (a lot of it), a lot of repetition of themes we originally encountered in the overture (most of the stuff that isn’t ornery), and a few missed opportunities. There are dozens of brief melodies in Die Feen which if expanded upon would actually be rather amazing, but instead we just get two or three bars of them and then they vanish, forever.   A couple do end up in Wagner’s two following operas, but you really have to know what you are looking for in order to catch them. Another thing worth mentioning in the case of Die Feen is its internationalist scope. Das Liebersverbot is very obviously Italian opera buffo with mere traces of mature Wagner, and Rienzi is a Syphilitic perversion of French Grand Opera doped up on Quicksilver, but here we actually get German influences (Weber, Beethoven, Marschener) along side Italian comic and tragic influences and French grand opera and opera comique in miniature, and what is more, we can spot the embryonic Wagnerian traits recognizable to anyone today along side them. As far as the performance here is concerned, I can’t fault anything, the singers and orchestra do a good job. And now that I have written over two thousand two hundred words on this opera, a student’s gamma.

7 responses to “Richard Wagner: Die Feen (Composed 1833-34)”

  1. A resounding endorsement!


    1. I really didn’t know what to do with it. You seemed determined not to do it and I didn’t want to seem too pushy about it being wondrous when I know it isn’t. It does have some good moments as I indicate, but I really don’t think watching it helps because of how dumb the plot is. A listen is enough.


      1. I listened to part of the first act, but found it slow and insipid. When I listened to it a few years back, I heard Die Frau ohne Schatten next – which made Die Feen seem better!


      2. Die Feen is a better Oper than Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is basically the same story, at least the a-plot. You also don’t get any of Von Hoffmannsthal’s syrupy natalist propaganda.

        The worst parts of Die Feen are the first fifty minutes or so and some patches in the other two acts. There is very little after the clunky if tuneful overture, just faerie music and Arindal’s first aria. Ada’s two big arias are good, not great, but good. The second act starts off well with Lora’s aria and the fear of the people. The centre of the act (and the opera) is Ada’s 10 minute monologue. The finale is fine, it gets the job done. Act 3 starts a bit more limply, but Arendal’s aria is good and there are a few spurts of melody afterwards.


    2. I wonder, should I do Maria Stuarda? Forman did it so I’m more against than for doing it but it is the Donizetti opera I have known the longest. Maybe I’ll do Ugo, conte di Parigi instead.


      1. If you like it, do it.


  2. I’m looking at what Forman said in The Good Wagner Opera Guide about Die Feen: six items are given timer notations and four are given one-star values (nothing higher than that), the six are the arias I mentioned for Ada, Arindal, and Lora. Apart from Lora’s aria, the three two-star items I have are the ones that got a one-star from Forman. The other two arias for Arindal are notated with times but no star-values. Ultimately he says it is something “between a beta and a gamma”. I couldn’t justify giving this a beta minus (too high), but I thought about a C+. I think a C is rather accurate, it isn’t a failure, but it is very much a student work which would probably never see the light of day at all if someone other than Wagner had written it. Other than the six arias, the overture, and the comic duet in the second act, the one-star items I’ve included are mostly for brief melodies that pop out of nowhere which I think are attractive and if they had been expanded upon would have been rather good, thus my 22 items. Oh, and he considered Act 3 Scene 1 to be the best overall scene in the opera.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: