The first representation of Herrat took place in Dresden on the 10th of March, 1892. Its author is long known as one of the first living composers, but his music is so serious, so extremely difficult in its execution, that this is probably the cause why his operas have been almost unknown hitherto. Like Wagner, he did the libretto himself; like him, he chose his subject from the old "Heldensaga," but here all likeness ends. There is no relation between Draeseke and Wagner; each goes his own way, each is an original genius.
The Amelungenlied, a translation of which has appeared from Simrock, bears great likeness to the Nibelungen; we even find in part the same persons. The subject is a bloody one; love and heroism are the poles which move it. The music is grand, stern, sometimes sublime, but we look vainly for grace and sweetness. The libretto is rather poor, the rhymes unmelodious and uneven; nevertheless the musical effect is deep and lasting; the breath of a master genius has brought it to life.
The first scene is laid in Etzel's (Attila's) Castle Gran. The King of the Hun's best vassal, Dietrich von Bern, has been severely wounded, and sent by his Sire to Gran, that he might be tended by Queen Helke, Etzel's wife. Instead of taking care of the hero, she leaves him to her maid Herlinde, who has naught but water at her disposition, while the Queen nurses her kinsman Dietrich der Reusse, a prisoner of war. The consequence of this is that Etzel, coming home, finds his friend sicker than before, while his enemy is well and strong. Full of wrath, he orders the Queen to keep Dietrich der Reusse prisoner, without leaving her any guards; should he escape, she is to be beheaded.
After Etzel's departure to the army Dietrich der Reusse escapes, notwithstanding the Queen's entreaties. In her distress Helke turns to the sore wounded Dietrich von Bern, who, though bitterly cursing her ingratitude, rises from his sick-bed in order to pursue the fugitive.
In the second act Dietrich der Reusse arrives on foot at Saben's castle in Esthonia. (Saben is a usurper, who has dispossessed King Neutwin and taken possession of his castle and his daughter Herrat.) Dietrich's steed is dead; but hearing his pursuer close upon his heels, he takes refuge in an adjacent wood. Herrat, standing on a balcony, has recognized him. She sees him vanish with regret, because prediction told her that a Dietrich would be her deliverer; but when another hero comes up she directs him to the wood to which Dietrich has flown. She hears the combat going on between the two, and soon the pursuer comes back, telling her that his enemy is dead and begging for rest and shelter. When he tells her his name, she starts back, well knowing that Saben, who has slain Dietrich's relatives, will not receive him graciously. She, however, accompanies him to a room, and, determined to protect him against Saben's wiles, she binds up his wounds and nurses him tenderly. Saben, entering, recognizes the Berner by his celebrated helmet; he leaves the room, telling Herrat to look well after such a famous guest. But Herrat's mind misgives her; she tries to rouse the hero, who has sunk into the sleep of exhaustion, and, not succeeding, places his arms well within his reach. When she is about to withdraw, she sees Saben return with a band of assassins. Their murmurs rouse Dietrich, who defends himself bravely, slaying one after another. But his strength is failing; when suddenly a disguised youth rushes to his assistance with eight well-armed companions. Saben's men are slain; Saben himself falls a victim to Dietrich's sword. When the youth unmasks, Dietrich recognizes in his deliverer Herrat, his sweet nurse, whose likeness to his own dead wife, Gotlinde, has moved him from the first. She offers him her father's kingdom, which he, though full of love and gratitude, is loath to accept, as he only claims her heart and hand. But ambition urges him to accept her offer, and so he not only obtains her hand, but is proclaimed King of Esthonia.
The third act presents the camp of the Huns, pitched southwards of Gran, near the Danube. Etzel has already twice granted respite to the Queen; but as there is no trace of the two Dietrichs, Helke is now to be executed. Old Hildebrand, one of the Berner's followers, is particularly inimical to her, because he believes her to be the cause of his beloved master's death.
Suddenly everybody's attention is attracted to a ship approaching the camp. Hildebrand, perceiving on it a hero in disguise, wearing Dietrich's helmet, with Waldemar and Ilias, Etzel's enemies, on his side, calls the people to arms. But when the foreign knight disembarks and, unmasking, shows the face of Dietrich von Bern, everybody is full of joy. He brings the two hostile kings as prisoners to Etzel, and lays the two crowns of Esthonia and of the Wiking country at his feet.
Etzel's brow, however, remains sombre; he sternly asks after Dietrich der Reusse. The Berner, unwilling to sing his own praise, is silent, when his wife, Herrat, steps forth, relating how her hero killed his antagonist in Saben's woods. Now, at last, Etzel relents; he draws his wife to his breast in forgiveness, and all sing hail to Etzel and Dietrich and to their Queen.
*From The Standard Operaglass: Detailed Plots of The Celebrated Operas With Critical and Biographical Remarks, Dates, etc. by Charles Annesley (pseudonym: Charles and Anna Tittman), with a Prelude by James Huneker New Edition, Revised, with Additions and Portraits, New York, Brentano's 1904.