“Der Barenhauter” or “The Bearskin Weaver” an opera in three acts, with text and music by Siegfried Wagner, was produced at the Hof Theatre in Munich, Jan. 22, 1899.
Hans Kraft, a young soldier. Melchior Frölich, the burgomaster. Lena, Gunda, his daughters. Louise, Parson Wippenbeck. Nicholas Spitz, the innkeeper. Anna, a waitress. Carl Muffel, Kasper Wilde, a sergeant from Plassenburg, the fortress. The Stranger. The Devil. Peasants, soldiers of Muffel’s company. Nymphs, children, a troop of little devils.
The action takes place at the close of the Thirty Years’ War and the scene is laid in the country about Bayreuth. A summer landscape near a village is first shown. A joyous crowd of peasants are hurrying to town to welcome the soldiers returning from the war. They all are warmly received and welcomed by their friends. Finally, Hans Kraft comes, looking anxiously for his mother. After many vain inquiries, an old peasant informs him that his mother died about three years before, that little property had been left and that the old home is now in the hands of strangers. Hans endeavors to obtain lodging from some of the peasants but is refused in no very kindly manner. As all run merrily on to feast at the inn, Hans sinks to the ground and gives way to grief over the death of his mother and to indignation over his treatment by the villagers.
Just then there appears, laughing heartily over Hans’ discomfiture, a person whom the young soldier easily recognizes as the Devil. His Satanic Majesty reminds Hans that the war is over and that he has no money and offers him rich treasure if he will serve for a year in Hell. His duties will be to keep the kettle boiling in which souls are tortured for punishment for their sins and to see that no one escapes. Hans, not caring much what happens, accepts the offer, and, having shut his eyes for a moment, reopens them in Hell.
The Devil, reminding the newcomer of his duties, leaves him alone after ordering him to get to work. First, Hans wafts a message to his mother, assuring her that his stay in Hell is only temporary. Voices now are heard from the kettle and among them Hans recognizes his colonel’s scolding tones. When he climbs up a ladder at the side of the kettle* and looks in, the colonel flatters him, hoping that he will let him out. Hans reminds him that he ill-treated him on earth and, climbing down, gleefully builds up the fire. A stranger, who is no other than Saint Peter, approaches to plead for the souls but Hans will not listen. Saint Peter proposes a game with dice, he staking gold and Hans the souls in the kettle. Hans loses and the Saint announces to the souls that they are free, at which a chorus above sings ” Hallelujah.”
Fearful wind and thunder are heard and the Devil rushes in. He stamps and howls and curses Hans and, calling up a troop of lesser devils, commands them to cover the miscreant with soot and dirt from the oven. In time his nails and beard will grow long and he will look like the Devil himself. Satan gives him a sack which always will contain gold for his needs, throws a bearskin over his shoulders, which he is to wear without washing for three years, and, opening the kettle, reminds him that he shall suffer in it if he does not find a wife within that time. Whereupon Hans is put to sleep.
Act II opens at night in the tavern. The parson, the burgomaster and many peasants are there, playing cards and drinking. Hans knocks at the door but when Anna, the waitress, opens it, she at once slams it shut crying that the Devil is outside. After some delay the window is shoved up and Hans is told to show his feet, and when it is found they are those of a man, he is admitted. The landlord and the burgomaster quarrel about an unpaid bill and Hans gives the burgomaster sixty florins. The burgomaster tells Hans about his three daughters. Hans immediately asks for one and is promised that he may see them on the morrow and take his choice.
Filled with hope, Hans goes to bed, forgetting the sack lying on the table. When all is quiet, the landlord in his nightcap steals in and plunges his hand into the sack.
He finds there not gold but a strange, sticky mass. With great difficulty he withdraws his hand, when bats, scorpions, and the like come forth from the sack. Hans, roused by the man’s shrieks, runs in and taking the sack, which the landlord admits he was trying to steal, goes to bed again.
It is morning when the next scene is shown. People are going past to church, and among them are the burgomaster and his three daughters. To Lena is given the first opportunity to see Hans. She calls Gunda and they ridicule him, pointing at his black face, long nails and dirty ears and calling him a devil. Soon Louise arrives, and seeing a tear on Hans’ face, she is moved to pity and is very gentle with him. He shows her the half ring the Devil gave him and tells her that if she will wear it for three years and if the gold does not fade, the curse which is upon him will depart. She places it upon a ribbon she wears about her neck and hides it beneath her bodice.
Loud voices are heard and the landlord and the peas-ants rush in. The landlord has told them about the bag and they accuse Hans of being in league with the Devil. Hans asks about the sixty florins and the landlord declares that he gave them back because they were the Devil’s gold. At this, Hans seizes him and takes the gold from his pocket. He throws it upon the ground and where it falls a hell flame shoots up. The peasants attack Hans but Louise remonstrates, declaring that he is a good man.
The third act shows first a wild pine forest where, upon a stone in a pool of water, the Devil sits with an hour-glass in his hand. The three years are at an end and Hans has won. Hans is sleeping on a grassy knoll and the little devils are busy about him. They cut his hair and beard, trim his nails, and wash the soot and dirt from his face. When he wakes up, Hans reminds the Devil of the three wishes which, as loser, he must grant. Hans’ first wish is to be what he was ; the second, to have the bag free from gold and ghosts; the third, that the Devil will leave him alone in the future. All these are granted and he bids the Devil farewell, going to his bride. As he is hastening along he is accosted by the stranger, who urges him to warn the sleeping fortress that Wallenstein’s army is about to attack it.
The scene shifts to the burgomaster’s garden, which looks out on the Plassenburg. Excited peasants cry that an army is coming to storm the fort and that all the soldiers are sleeping. The worst of it is that no one dares to go to waken them. In the midst of their trepidation, the sergeant rushes in and tells them that the danger has been averted by Hans Kraft, whom they formerly knew as a soldier. The colonel details soldiers to bring Hans to the glory which awaits him. While Louise, left alone, is thinking of him whose ring she wears and longing for his return, a soldier enters, slightly wounded, and she binds his wrist. He asks for a drink of water and drops his part of the ring into the glass.
To be brief, everything ends happily ; the people learning that their idol, Hans, is no other than the black man who wore the bearskin and that through the love of Louise the curse has been removed.
The music of ” The Bearskin Weaver ” is naturally after the style of Richard Wagner and many of the orchestral effects as well as the motifs themselves are more than merely reminiscent. The opera has known but a short life in Germany and has not made its way into other lands, facts which tend to prove that the interest it aroused when it first appeared was due more to curiosity concerning the abilities of Siegfried Wagner, the son of Richard Wagner, than to any enduring values in the work itself.