It should be clear by now that Wolf was a miniaturist (not, as he thought, a derisive description at all), that his entire creative bent was for multiple nuances compressed into a small space, not for canvasses painted with a large brush. His basic mode of musical thought was in terms of piano and solo voice as the original conception, which he would then expand as orchestration, choral writing and operatic dialogue under the impetus of his desire for larger forms. His operas, one finished, one unfinished, are marked by their birth as, in effect, a string of songs, many of them beautiful, powerful, psychologically acute in musical characterization, but not expansively conceived. Had he lived longer, Wolf could perhaps have devised a form of opera akin to novella, a genre midway between opera and song, although whether this would have satisfied him is questionable. Despite encroaching illness, he was approaching just such a hybrid in Manuel Venegas when the devil of disease came for his soul in September 1897, and it is sadly intriguing to think of what he might have done both in song and opera had his mind held out.
Flaws in first operas are the rule rather than the exception, and there are unquestionably flaws in Der Corregidor, large ones at that. The most frequently cited objections include complaints that the libretto is structurally weak; that there are no cumulative developments leading to strategic dramatic goals; that the opera consists of a series of lyrical moments; that Wolf was averse to massed ensembles of Wagnerian breadth and shunned any hint of spectacle, hence denying a basic ingredient of the genre. At the confrontation in front of the Corregidor's house in Act 4, Wolf has a town guardsman burst through the door and demand to know the Corregidor's whereabouts; where Wagner might have concocted a wonderful choral-orchestral-solo tumult from Frasquita's lamentations, Repela's assertions that Lukas is the Corregidor, the Corregidor and his constable shouting in rage, and the soldiers milling about, Wolf dispenses with the matter in fewer than 20 bars. Defensively, he confused expansiveness with pandering to the box office and quoted Nietzsche's condemnation of theatrical folk as lacking the finest senses of their art in a letter to Rosa Mayreder. There are loose ends as well: characters are expected but never actually appear (the bishop at the end of Act 1), or else appear once and then disappear (the jealous neighbour). One major character – the Corregidor's wife – is not fully known to us by the end of the opera; denied a solo monologue, a ‘Porgi amor’ to tell us of her nature and her plight, or even a lengthy passage of dialogue, she acts as a dea ex machina, the hints in both libretto and score of a complex, wronged and yet powerful woman never developed at sufficient length to satisfy our curiosity about her. Temporal incongruities abound, that is, mismatches between the duration of narrative events and their duration in musical setting. In particular, time in Act 2 is so skewed that it is difficult to discern whether the chronologies of different events overlap or time has been implausibly compressed, the transitions from one time and place to the next far too short.
Whatever his earlier wish for un-Wagnerian ‘guitars, moonlight and champagne’, Wolf actually wanted to create psychological drama, not light entertainment, and he and Rosa Mayreder accordingly turned Alarcón's tale of social satire, spiced by ironic incongruities, in El sombrero de tres picos into something more Wolfian. For Wolf, whose relationships with authority figures were troubled at best and antagonistic at worst, the title figure of Der Corregidor, whose full name is Don Eugenio de Zuñiga y Ponce de León, gave him the opportunity to depict figures of authority as possessed of genuine power wielded for ignoble purposes and to defeat that power in the end. The three-cornered hat was additionally a symbol for Wolf of a sexual triangle between the miller Lukas, his spirited wife Frasquita, and the Corregidor; what is farcical in Alarcón becomes more serious in Wolf, who gives the Corregidor music of Tristanesque ardour for his attempted seduction of Frasquita and makes Lukas's Act 3 scene iii jealousy monologue the pièce de résistance of the opera. (The importance of jealousy as a theme in this opera is established at the beginning of Act 1, when Frasquita's beauty, Lukas's good fortune and the mill's hospitality are invoked by a jealous neighbour in conversation with the miller.) Furthermore, Wolf, who was involved with a married woman, idealized marriage as only the unmarried can, and his opera hinges on the polarity of one happy married couple (the peasants Lukas and Frasquita) and an unhappy one (the aristocratic Corregidor and his wife Mercedes); the beautiful but songlike Act 1 duet ‘In solchen Abendfeierstunden’ for Lukas and Frasquita may have provided the model for Richard Strauss's Act 2 duet ‘Und ich will dein Gebieter sein’ in Arabella, a vision of future matrimonial happiness in the same key of E major and sharing the same euphonious parallel 3rds, quasi-chanted declamation on repeated pitches and rhythmic unanimity. In addition to the quartet of major figures, a small gallery of secondary characters – the Corregidor's repellent constable Repela, the feisty maid Manuela and a drunken mayor, Juan López – provides the comedic elements, such as Repela's Act 4 scene ii anti-serenade, ‘Blim blam! Blim blam! Mach' auf!’. This was Wolf's reply to Beckmesser's ‘Morgen ich leuchte in rosigem Schein’, complete with a melismatic jab against the vocal acrobatics Wolf disliked in Italian opera. The misogynistic, snuff-taking Repela is also characterized by musical outbursts of sneezing and by a theme similar to the principal accompanimental figure throughout the Goethe song Spottlied (from the Wilhelm Meister songs); Repela too is a mocker.
At a social occasion in 1905, Wolf's friend Grohe expressed regret to Mahler that the text of Der Corregidor was not effective on stage, to which Mahler (unaware of Grohe's friendship with Wolf) replied that the text was fine but ‘the music is not worth anything … Wolf did not have enough ideas. One cannot make an opera nowadays with a few motifs loosely joined together’. His judgment was far too harsh, but Wolf did think in terms of themes (most of them not really comparable to Wagnerian leitmotifs but longer, more lyrical statements) that would constitute capsule characterizations not only of the characters but of the relationships between them, and it is true that they become obsessive on occasion (there are almost 100 statements of Lukas's theme in the first act alone). ‘Have you noticed’, Wolf wrote to Mayreder while working on the composition of Act 1, ‘how I treated “our” neighbour with a truly apt musical expression of enmity? The neighbour's motif is in perverse opposition to that of Tio Lukas, where the two figures cross one another. This is not just purely musical but deeply grounded in psychology’. (It is an unpleasant touch of Viennese anti-Semitism that Wolf points with pride to the nasal tone – associated with ‘Jewishness’ – he has indicated for the neighbour.) For example, the Corregidor's theme and that of his constable are similar, since both belong to what Saary calls ‘the domain of power’ in the opera, but the constable's theme is simpler, even banal, without the menace and power conveyed by the outlined augmented triads of the Corregidor's figure, while Lukas and Frasquita both have themes filled with anticipations and appoggiaturas to show their close relationship. The Corregidora Mercedes's theme is set apart from the others, its majestic, 3rd-related chords seeming like a latterday descendant of block-chordal invocations of the names of Christ and the Virgin Mary in Giovanni Gabrieli's polychoral motets for S Marco, similarly evocative of solemnity and majesty. Several of Wolf's themes were evidently invented with contrapuntal artifice, transformation and combination in mind, as when Lukas's theme appears in the rhythmic garb of the Corregidor's figure (the two men exchange clothes in the drama). The saturation of the texture in these figures shows Wolf measuring himself, as ever, against Wagner, in particular Die Meistersinger. Wolf studied this opera assiduously throughout the composition of his own initial foray, referred to it often in his letters, and outdid Wagner's orchestra in size if not in effectiveness. He even wanted his opera printed in Gothic type because Wagner's operas were. ‘Without the Meistersinger the Corregidor would never have been composed’, he told Rosa Mayreder.
Der Corregidor has many virtues as well as faults and can just as well be considered a success in a hybrid genre of Wolf's own devising as a failure in an older genre. Lukas's jealousy monologue proves that operatic breadth was indeed within Wolf's ken; this is not song material, and Wolf does not treat it as such. Comparisons have justly been made to Ford's jealousy monologue ‘E sogno? o realtá?’ in Act 2 of Verdi's Falstaff. Vivid moments abound throughout the opera, the small scenes often of great beauty (Frasquita's song to the moon, ‘Neugier'ge Mond’, in Act 3 scene i, for example) or humour (the four-part canon in Act 2 about El Cid retiring to bed early, ample justification for the inebriates singing the canon to do likewise and additionally a Wolfian critique of pedantry: he despised overt displays of contrapuntal artifice). But there are too many elements at cross-purposes with one another, too many incompatible ideals – Wolf at war with Wagner all too audibly – and Der Corregidor has never entered the standard repertory, nor can one imagine that it ever will.
Wolf had not even completed the composition of his opera before he was once again on the trail of another libretto, and this time he was willing to consider tragic subjects. After considering Hauptmann's drama Dies versunkene Glocke, Wolf pressed Rosa Mayreder to adapt Franz Eyssenhardt's translation of Alarcón's short novel El niño de la bola (‘The Boy on the Globe’, meaning the Christ Child); she was reluctant to do so because its Catholicism offended her non-religious sensibilities, but she obliged nonetheless. Moritz Hoernes, whose libretto Wolf chose over Mayreder's, was also inexperienced in the special requirements of opera, and Wolf made substantial revisions on his own, striking out some 100 of 350 lines and revising 66 more. (In the asylum, he told the director Dr Svetlin and Rosa Mayreder that he had become a poetic genius and would write his own opera texts, the folie de grandeur truly tragic.)
It may be futile to mourn what fate has left unfinished, but it is difficult not to do so when one surveys the 600-bar fragment of Act 1 of Manuel Venegas. The Spring Chorus (scored for SATT) which follows the ‘orchestral’ introduction and the full chorus of the villagers, its antiphonal crowd interjections a latterday secular reminder of Bach's Passion choruses, are reminders of Wolf's ambition to enhance his reputation by means of choral composition. In particular, the mentally unbalanced title character's homecoming aria, ‘Stadt meiner Väter’, makes one regret the loss. It is a tragic possibility that Wolf was drawn to this subject because of unconscious identification with its protagonist. The score breaks off at Manuel's cry of pain when he remembers the incident in the past which led to his leavetaking from the town; those who read this score may be similarly pained at such an end to Wolf's dream of opera.