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Joseph WEIGL (1766 - 1846) Die Schweizer Familie (1809) [130.57]
Graf Wallenstein – Tobia Müller-Kopp (baritone)
Durmann – Petri Mikael Pöyhönen (tenor)
Richard Boll – Stephan Bootz (bass)
Gertrude Boll – Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo)
Emmeline – Marilia Vargas (soprano)
Jacob Fribourg – Roman Payer (tenor)
Paul – Robert Maszl (tenor)
Emmeline’s dialogue spoken by Antje Hochholdinger
Durmann’s dialogue spoken by Michael Hoffmann
Chorus and Orchestra Dreieck/Uri Rom
rec. Herbert von Karajan Saal, Universität der Künste, Berlin; September, November 2004. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7298-9 [68.47 + 62.10]

You might be forgiven for thinking that an opera entitled Die Schweizer Familie (The Swiss Family) might be an operatic adaptation of the children’s novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, but you would be wrong. Die Schweizer Familie was one of the most popular singspiels in the first half of the 19th century. It had performances not only in the German speaking world but everywhere from Paris to St. Petersburg, Stockholm to Milan. Its last production was in Munich in 1918, then, amazingly, it fell from view until 2004.

The work’s composer, Joseph Weigl, came from a family of musicians at the court of Prince Esterhazy. He was a godchild of Haydn’s, studied with Salieri and played a leading role in rehearsing the Mozart-Da Ponte operas from 1786 to 1790. He worked as the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera from 1790 and composed his first opera in 1783. From 1827 he worked also worked in the Hofburgkapelle. He composed over a dozen operas, 18 ballets, 11 masses, 2 oratorios and 22 cantatas.

Die Schweizer Familie was premiered in 1809 at the Vienna Kärntnertor Theatre. Its librettist was Ignaz Franz Castelli, one of the most sought-after theatre authors and translators in Vienna; Schubert set his libretto Die Verschwornen in 1823. The plot is rather slight, and this goes some way to explaining why the opera has fallen from favour.

German Count Wallenstein was rescued from a mountain accident in Switzerland by Robert Boll, a poor farmer from Griswald; in recompense, Wallenstein has brought Griswald, his wife Gertrude and their daughter Emmeline to his estate in Germany. Though their well-being is cared for, the family miss Switzerland and Emmeline withdraws into a melancholy world of her own imagination. To combat this the Count and his steward, Durmann, decide to compensate the family by building them an artificial piece of Switzerland on the estate. To help combat Emmeline’s melancholy, they bring her lover, Jacob Fribourg to the estate. The closest the plot comes to tension are the moments when Paul, Durmann’s clumsy cousin, believes that he could have a chance of marrying Emmeline and the family’s decision to delay Emmeline’s first meeting with Jacob. Needless to say, all ends happily, to the sound of an authentic Swiss Kuhreigen.

The opera capitalised on the fashion for all things Swiss. But the idea of building an artificial country comes in fact from a French work; Berton’s opera Aline (Paris, 1803) which includes the recreation of the Indian kingdom of Golconda in the Provençal countryside. The libretto’s direct antecedent is in fact a French vaudeville, Pauvre Jacques. In some parts, Castelli’s work was minimal; some scenes are almost direct translations of the French.

The opera was much beloved of Schubert, who saw it regularly. Motifs from the opera can be traced in his music. In his CD booklet Till Gerrit Waidelich argues that Schubert’s Hirt auf dem Felsen D 965 has echoes of the opera. It was written for Anna Milder-Hauptmann who was the first Viennese Emmeline - and was Beethoven’s first Leonore. Wagner also knew the opera, he wrote an aria for insertion into the opera while he was working as a conductor in Riga in 1837.

Like many singspiels from the era, spoken dialogue plays an important role. Even though it is slightly trimmed, there is still a substantial amount; the first act - including the overture - has 32 minutes of music and 19 minutes of dialogue. The balance of the remaining acts is similar. This is both admirable and off-putting. Admirable in that if you are going to do a singspiel complete with its dialogue, then you should perform a reasonable amount of it so that the balance of music and spoken word is right. Weigl’s charming arias and ensembles were not meant to be heard pell-mell, but punctuated by dialogue.

But not everyone wants to listen to extensive tracts of German dialogue, no matter how well it is delivered. The discs, however, have tracks which are well indexed so that it would be possible to programme your CD player to miss most of the dialogue.

Would it be worth it? The answer is, I think, yes. Weigl’s music has charm and melody. On listening to it you can understand its popularity. His orchestration has something of Mozartian charm and whilst his accompaniments are not as complex as Mozart’s they are well crafted and lovely to listen to with attractively prominent wind solos. The vocal parts are similarly charming and varied with imaginative ensembles. Scarcely any trouble seems to disturb these waters. The music does nothing to probe the characters’ feelings and troubles, slight though these are. This is feel-good music.

The roles in the opera are all well cast and the overall performance is more than creditable. Marilia Vargas makes an attractive heroine and she easily negotiates the elaborate roulades with which the character’s mental disturbance is expressed. Roman Payer is a fine Jacob, though this character only appears half way through the opera and Emmeline’s other suitor, Paul, is almost as big a role. Paul is well played by Robert Mazsl, though the character’s music does not go very far in characterising his supposedly clumsy nature.

I am not sure this will appeal to everyone, but for anyone interested in the early 19th century opera, this disc is a must. The work provides a fascinating background to the giants of the repertoire and helps us to understand the difficulties that Weber had when he tried to write German Romantic opera. Listen to this work and you will understand some of the apparently trite moments in Euryanthe and Freischutz and come to appreciate his achievement.

Uri Rom directs the Chorus and Orchestra Dreieck in a fine performance with some attractive musical moments. Everyone contributes to a strong performance which never seeks to over-do the work’s fragile charm.

 

Robert Hugill

 

 

 



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