A surprisingly wide selection of Siegfried Wagner's operas is currently available on disc from Marco Polo and CPO in particular. I cannot honestly say I have heard many of them, but `Die Heilige Linde' was in any case Siegfried's fourteenth essay in the genre, composed in 1927. It is a worthwhile work but no masterpiece and shows rather strikingly how Siegfried struggled to escape - or perhaps rather come to terms with - the legacy of his more famous father. He wrote the libretto himself and the plot is a messy, overblown affair exhibiting a questionable sense of dramatic pacing and suggests at least part of the reason why the work stands little chance of a general revival - it is not a horrible libretto per se, but short-breathed and containing too many characters and loose ends (as opposed to, say, Richard's librettos).
It is set in the twilight of the Roman Empire where Arbogast, King of a German tribe but constantly swayed by Roman influences, has cut down the holy linden tree because it obstructed his view, to the dismay of other Germans (the heroes). In the end, though, Arbogast learns the errors of his ways and denounces the deceitful Romans. In general, the whole thing is a very complex, relatively gory muddle with strong nationalistic undertones. The characters are, well, characters, with little or no psychological depth. Some of the scenes are, however, effectively done, both in terms of music and drama, such as the scene with the final funeral pyre for Arbogast with its promise of hope and renewal.
While clearly a skilled composer, Siegfried also struggled to escape the shadow of his father when it comes to portraying his characters, who appears as thinly veiled amalgams of central characters from Richard's operas - including thematic material, choice of voices and the writing for those voices. And overall, the orchestral music is far more interesting than the vocal music, which is relatively conventional and dutiful - much of the scoring and orchestral parts also shows some originality and traces of an individual voice. Indeed, there are several gorgeous moments here and many opulently scored, truly stirring scenes (but they are almost inevitably somewhat undermined when the voices enter). Best - apart from some lushly beautiful orchestral interludes - is the last act. But the whole thing is definitely well worth hearing, at least once.
As for the performances, Wegner is an authoritative, dramatic Arbogast, although the voice is somewhat hard around the edges and he does exhibit the occasional strain. Fritigern, the rather pained hero, is also well done; Scharnke has a fine voice with a reasonable range and ability to shade and color the material. Volker Horn as Philo is darkly dramatic and well sung. Among the female characters, Dagmar Schellenberger as Hildegard is perhaps the best singer here, even if there is a surplus of vibrato in her voice. Katalin Halmai's Autonoe is less convincing, failing to realize the dark seductiveness the character is supposed to display.
The WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln are the heroes of the performance, however, giving us some gorgeous orchestral textures and some fierce high-drama. Werner Andreas Albert conducts with conviction and dramatic flair. As I mentioned, the orchestral parts (such as the long overture) yield the strongest music of the opera and it is certainly good these are so well done. In the end, this is hardly a mandatory acquisition and will probably appeal mostly to those with a special interest in late romantic opera - it is indeed a fine work even if it doesn't quite compete with the works of some of his contemporaries (from d'Albert to Zemlinsky). Still, it is certainly an attractive release of some attractive music - I am vacillating between 3 and 4 stars (`worthwhile' and `recommended') for this one, and my final verdict must that CPO at least deserves some extra credit for their effort - long may they continue exploring the byways of romanticism with performances as good as these.