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Offenbach: Les Fées du Rhin rediscovered

(October 2002)

Not Eve, not Germania: notes on an (un)timely opera



Now that we have before us the orchestral score of Jacques Offenbach's Romantic grand opera, Les Fées du Rhin, printed for the first time in unabridged form, we may well ask in amazement how it was that it took 140 years before this unusual masterpiece by a composer who is not by any means a nonentity should finally be performed in its original version. We will mention below some of the possible reasons for this, and throw a little light on them: the adverse circumstances that accompanied the rehearsals of the opera in January 1864, the political situation (and the situation in terms of cultural politics) at the time when it was created, Offenbach’s position as a Jewish composer of German origin who was working in France, and particular features lying within the work itself.

In the extremely scanty secondary literature it is claimed that the work fell flat at its premiere. If we read the critics who reported on the first performance, however, we find that dissenting and approving voices were balanced out – plainly the performance was a huge public success. So we find Offenbach sending a report to Alfred von Wolzogen, the translator of the libretto, in Breslau: ”Last Thursday was finally the first performance of the Rheinnixe and in spite of the understandable hopes of my detractors it was a great success. I was called to the footlights eight times. (...) Many numbers were vigorously applauded. The second performance went even better – not that this does anything to stop the Wagnerian journals trying to annihilate me.” The Niederrheinische Zeitung music critic divided the contemporary opera scene in Vienna up into four camps: the ”party of those who stand by traditional music”, those who upheld ”Wagnerian music, those of the Italian persuasion (Verdi’s advocates, that is”, and finally there was a ”fourth party”, the unprejudiced general public, which ”is the largest... it does not make any predictions, but awaits with curiosity and imaginative sympathy whatever it is offered. This party is the one that determines the success of a work when performed, and my report is historically correct in confirming that the full house, with liberally bestowed applause, granted the opera a passport to travel to any operatic stage in the world.” We are forced to suspect that the success of the opera was played down, because certain trend-setting ”parties” could not endure it that Offenbach should be achieve success in the sphere of dramatic grand opera.

Certainly, the criticism of the libretto that was voiced in various quarters was justified, the more so in view of the cut version performed at the Vienna premiere. Offenbach was the last person to deny this: he wrote to Wolzogen in the letter quoted earlier, ”I know that the libretto has been under heavy attack, and it is assuredly not your fault, dear maestro, that the libretto was so mutilated through the force of circumstances.” The reconstruction of the original version shows that the numerous cuts that were made before the first performance tampered grossly with the dramatic substance of the work, and in a number of places occasioned breaks in the logical motivation of the plot.

So if the work was diminished, the first time it had the possibility of becoming effective, as a result of the adverse circumstances of the premiere, why were there no performances of the original version at a later date? Even the Viennese arch-critic, Eduard Hanslick – at other times a glowing advocate of Offenbach’s music – approached the work with reserve, even if he could not avoid praising ”the many fine ingenious details”. Like other critics as well, Hanslick took the view that in grand opera Offenbach had ventured upon a terrain that was alien to his true nature. Offenbach had been characterised as a composer whose Muse was light-hearted. If he was allowed to be successful in the genre which he founded, the criticism was all the harsher when he aimed to occupy the higher temple of the Muses. It must be admitted, certainly, that Offenbach had a rare gift for using the materials he selected to provoke antagonism. To aspire to capture the Parisian Salle Favart with a dog in the leading role of a comic opera (Barkouf) – this testifies to a certain crazy audacity; while when he attempted, through a big romantic opera, to educate the Germans and Austrians in the idea of German nationality – as a Jew of Rhineland origin working in Paris – this had something practically suicidal about it.

The patriotism of Les Fées du Rhin has induced merriment on many occasions, but it has never before been interpreted either in its temporal and cultural context or from the point of view of the opera’s intentions. If Les Fées du Rhin, from the point of view of form, represents an attempt to amalgamate elements of comic opera with those of grand opera, the basic idea of the plot – placing personal destinies against the background of authentic historical events, and weaving them together with these – is a typical element of grand opera. The choice of time and place for the plot testify to a definite political intention on the part of the authors: the story is played out in a region which, in the course of the Germans’ discovery of themselves in the 19th century, was mythically transfigured. The Rhine was sensed as being the stream that sundered two cultures, which became increasingly alien to one another as progress was made towards the political unification of Germany; and this alienation on the German side took on positively hysterical traits. The year 1522 points to the time of the German Peasant Wars, the first big revolution in modern history that was ‘democratic from the base up’, in which the population of the country protested against feudal and clerical tyranny, against arbitrary government and alien directives. The reference to the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848 is plain to be seen. Les Fées du Rhin was conceived, however, not so much from the standpoint of the spirit of ’48 – even if Offenbach uses his Hymn to the Fatherland, composed in 1848, as a leitmotif – but rather on the basis of a premonition of the coming unification of Germany, a completely and utterly undemocratic process dominated by the interests of power politics. In 1864, this could already clearly be seen coming. In 1862 Bismarck had been appointed Prime Minister of Prussia by Wilhelm I, and he worked to strengthen the Prussian monarchy through an astute military strategy in 1864, the year of the first performance of Les Fées du Rhin, Denmark was defeated, and just two years later it was Austria’s turn. This led to the dissolution of the Deutscher Bund and a yet greater extension of the Prussian sphere of influence. The founding of the German Reich, which can also be seen as a massive annexation by Prussia of other territories, was the direct result of the Franco-German war, which was started by Bismarck in a spirit of calculation (the ‘Ems dispatch’). The coronation of the Kaiser on 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, underlines the symbolic character of the proceedings: the German Reich was founded on the defeat of France. (The future was to reveal, of course, that this strengthening of national identity through the humiliation of another land would have psychologically fatal consequences on both sides). It was not as the revolutionaries of 1830 and 1848 had intended: the German Reich was not brought about as the result of a democratic process – the people’s opinion was not asked. 

If we look at Offenbach’s opera against this background, many things, including its poor chances of success, become clearer: it was radically opposed to the spirit of the times. Les Fées du Rhin is a pacifist work through and through, in which the ”German man of war” gets the worst marks that can possibly be imagined. The fact that Franz suffers from a trauma and cannot remember either his love or his homeland, having suffered a wound in the head in a military confrontation, has highly symbolic significance, and a high degree of symbolism attaches too, and above all, to the two couples – Armgard and Franz, Hedwig and Conrad. As instanced in hardly any other opera, here the matriarchal sphere, in its life-sustaining role, is at the centre of the action. It stands for a civilised society structure, for a community that guarantees the well-being of the individual, whereas the patriarchal sphere represented by Conrad, by contrast, is shown in all its destructiveness. The "Fatherland", which is continuously weighed down in the dramatic highlights of the opera, is neither the Fatherland of Moltke or of Baron Krupp. It refers, precisely in the unexpectedly happy resolution of the drama, to a utopian condition of non-violent democracy, and yet by this it actually means a ”Motherland”. Armgard, the fabulous heroine of this opera, is the complete opposite of all Wagner’s female heroines – both the demonic ones, and those who suffer in silence. She is the only one who holds all the threads in her hand, and she succeeds, in a Shakespearian midsummer night, in curing the men’s sick brains and emancipating herself from the mother’s sphere of influence, uniting in her own person the aspects of Leonora and Pamina in equal measure. 

If Les Fées du Rhin, then, fell foul of the German Zeitgeist with its chauvinistic tumescence directed against the image of France as the enemy, its creator was even more a contradiction of the image that was to be anticipated of a composer who would create a German national opera. In the eyes of his contemporaries, and not just the Wagnerians, Offenbach stood for the superficial, loose-living, conscienceless spirit of ”frenchification”: he was the ultimate representative of that ‘non-German frivolity’ against which Wagner’s contemporaneous work Die Meistersinger, in admonitory fashion, set the ideal of ‘sacred German art’. Wagner caricatured the detested Offenbach as the Dancing Master in his frightful ‘comedy’,  A capitulation, in which he makes merry at the expense of the conquered French and the victims of the Parisian Commune: ”Dance! Sing! / Da-di-da! da! da! / It’s the genius of France / that wants us to sing and to dance!”, as the choir, conducted by Offenbach on the trumpet, sings to the accompaniment of Victor Hugo’s defence of that same ‘genius of France’: ”Pomade, soap, civilisation – these are my prime delectation.” 

Against the background of an increasingly accentuated antisemitism in Germany, which took pathological form in others besides Wagner, Offenbach as a composer of German romantic operas was just insupportable. It was not enough that he should not be allowed to write them; he was not to be allowed even to have the ability. ”Romanticism is not an organic component of the work, but an external additive. We would be dealing altogether well and fairly to judge Die Rheinnixen decidedly from the point of view of French opera. Between the German forest mood of Der Freischütz and the Parisian and elegant elfin grove of Offenbach there are perceptible differences. (...) Wagner’s Rheingold and Offenbach’s Rheinnixen have only external features in common,” wrote Eduard Hanslick, in a representative sample, himself in his turn to be caricatured by Wagner in Die Meistersinger in the character of Beckmesser.

The Romanticism of Les Fées du Rhin is not an overblown German Romanticism, but an ironic Romanticism owing something to the spirit of Heinrich Heine. Even though important elements of the action are borrowed from the Lorelei legend, related in its turn to the Undine story, all the same it is not an elfin being who stands at the centre of the story. Which is why the title Die Rheinnixe(n) – recommended, incidentally, by Hanslick – disappears into the void. Offenbach’s fairies are those female elemental spirits which were created by male fantasies of the 19th and early 20th centuries as a screen on which to project their own sexual neuroses; and they have populated the operatic stage, from Undine to Lulu.  ”Half she drew him in, half he sank down”, as Goethe wrote in his poem The Fisherman, of a man who was overcome by a ”wet female” – and it is an acute description of this gesture of simultaneous defence against and surrender to the sphere of the unconscious and the instinctive. The fact that the music of the elves recurred fifteen years later, as a music of courtesans, in the Giulietta act of Hoffmann’s Tales was interpreted as a whim on the part of the composer. The subtle irony concealed in the transformation of this quite uncommonly sensuous music remained unnoticed: Les Fées du Rhin deals with the same aspect of seduction. Elfin grove and battlefield are opposite sides of one and the same coin – the fear of sexuality (female sexuality), which in the 19th century reached its acme in a horror of the effeminate tendencies seen in society, corresponded to a cult of reason, and of male heroism and self-glorification. Offenbach’s opera makes this its theme, to wonderful effect: it is the men of war who become the victims of the elfin allurements, while the rest are immune.

© Frank Harders-Wuthenow, June 2002


> Further information on series: OEK (Offenbach Edition Keck)
> Further information on Work: Les Fées du Rhin (OEK critical edition)



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