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A Wagner discovery...

Männerlist grösser als Frauenlist

oder

Die glückliche Bärenfamilie

Komische Oper in 2 Akten

Men are more Cunning than Women

or

The Happy Bear Family

Comic Opera in Two Acts

The Commission

In the autumn of 2006 I received an intriguing request from the Wagner expert, Barry Millington, to look over some sketches which had come to light and see if it might be possible to bring them to life. As Millington says in The Wagner Journal (vol. 1 No. 3 - Happy Families: A Wagner Singspiel Rediscovered):

Portrait of Wagner

"The likelihood of previously unknown music of Wagner's coming to light over a century after his death might be thought remote. Yet that is exactly what happened in the summer of 1994, when sketches for Wagner's youthful comic opera Männerlist grösser als Frauenlist oder Die glückliche Bärenfamilie (Men are more Cunning than Women, or The Happy Bear Family), WWV48, previously thought to be irretrievably lost, surfaced in a private collection. Männerlist, which dates from 1838 - in other words immediately prior to Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer - was to have been an opera in the light French style. Why was Wagner contemplating writing an opera in what was surely an antipathetic style to him? What would it have sounded like? And why did he abandon it?"

The Royal Opera House became interested in the project and when it seemed clear that the material was indeed suitable for reconstruction I was commissioned to transcribe, realise and orchestrate the sketches. A date was set for a Wagner premiere!

Working on the Sketches

Although each of the two movements was found to be complete in formal and melodic content, the harmonic and textural implications were often ambiguous. I had to work with photocopies of Wagner's hasty and nearly illegible autograph piano drafts. This sometimes consisted of a melodic line and sporadic base support. It was also necessary to decipher the libretto which was written in Fraktur - an antiquated Gothic script. Fortunately I understood German well enough to attempt a translation of the texts (admittedly with the help of a good dictionary) which was necessary for me to understand the dramatic emphasis in the realisation of the harmonies and orchestration.

So the first stage was to make a transcript of what actually existed. This was fascinating but time-consuming (often involving a magnifying glass!). The next stage demanded an intuitive leap and was a more risky affair. I am not a musicologist so my approach was rather to "inhabit" these somewhat tenuous ideas as though they had been my own and then to measure my inclinations against the style and atmosphere of the 1830s.

When I had arrived at a full harmonic realisation, I then orchestrated the material. Here there was, necessarily, more of a compromise and awareness of the appropriate forces since I had to deploy the orchestral manner of the early 19th Century. Although the judgement of timbre, texture and figuration was still mine, there were various performance and instrumental techniques which had to be observed and assimilated.

The Premiere - October 13th 2007

There was quite a sense of excitement at the premiere in the Linbury theatre. Two rising stars, from the world of opera (Ailish Tynan and Robert Murray) took on the main roles with gusto and Stephen Barlow conducted the South Bank Sinfonia and the ROH chorus (Chorus Master, Rennato Balsadonna) in what was a very successful premiere.

The Future

The two completed numbers (c. 15mins) have now been published by Music Haven - the score will include a fascinating introductory essay by Barry Millington.

Frustratingly, there is no recording of the first performance and it awaits the first commercial recording...

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