Männerlist größer als Frauenlist
Two complete numbers from an early comic opera by Wagner that were discovered in 1994. Published here for the first time, this full orchestral score also features an essay (in English and German) by Barry Millington.
As Millington says in The Wagner Journal (vol.1 No 3 - Happy Families: A Wagner Singspiel Rediscovered):
“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?”
In the autumn of 2006, Millington gave the sketches to James Francis Brown to see if it might be possible to bring them to life. The Royal Opera House became interested in the project and when it seemed clear that the material was indeed suitable for reconstruction James Francis Brown 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 19thCentury. 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 première - October 13th 2007:
There was quite a sense of excitement at the première 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 première.