Schubert was a great fan of the opera. He attended the première
of Beethoven’s Fidelio in its final form and was familiar
with the operas of Mozart, Salieri and Glück. His own operas remain
the Cinderellas among his works. Fierrabras, commissioned
and completed in 1823, had to wait until 1988 for its first performance;
it was returned, probably unseen, by the theatre manager Barbaja.
It has something of the appearance of an unfinished work – the
librettist didn’t even get the spelling of the Spanish word Fierabras
(from fiera, wild) correct. Yet the same year, 1823, saw
the composition of much of the song-cycle die schöne Müllerin,
so we can hardly blame the serious illness which debilitated Schubert
for much of the year.
First the bad news. This production is too clever
for its own good – so gimmicky that, well before the end of
the first DVD, I could watch it no longer and reverted to playing
the sound alone via my audio system.
I’m sure it was very clever to insert Wolfgang
Beuschel as Franz Schubert himself into the action, but it was
too much of a distraction for me. Presumably it was felt that
the opera-going public would not understand this little-known
work without lots of stage business. In fact, the opposite is
true of operas of this period – Weber’s Oberon is all
the better for being cut down to size.
During the overture we see ‘Schubert’ working on
the score; at least, this means that we are spared too many
shots up the orchestral players’ noses, though there are a few
of these too. As the camera pans away, we see the apparently
diminutive composer seated on a huge chair at a monster piano.
No doubt the producer is reminding us that he has seen the caricature
of the composer dwarfed by his friend, the singer Vogl, but
the monster chair and piano remain on stage for most of the
action. Why do we need them? Apart from allowing Charlemagne
to mount the huge chair to deliver his victory speech, not at
all; they just get in the way, physically limiting the stage
space and acting as a visual distraction.
Because of the difficulty of getting the monster
piano off the stage, scene changes are announced merely by projecting
the name of the venue onto the back wall of the stage. Of course,
the Elizabethan theatre suffered from similar limitations –
it didn’t even have back-projection – but the playwrights, aware
of the problem, wrote the locations into the words of the characters.
Even then, Shakespeare, who uses the Chorus in Henry V
to ask us to excuse his audacity in presenting epic events within
the wooden ‘O’, would probably have thought it ridiculous for
a modern opera house to impose these limits on itself. In military
terms, of course, a self-inflicted wound is a serious crime.
Even when the giant piano is hoisted off the stage,
as in the picture on the front cover, the distraction factor
is not diminished – to leave it dangling in the air at a crazy
angle as it slowly ascends is even more distracting. That it
looks like an up-scaled replica of the kind of piano that Schubert
would have played is irrelevant.
By the beginning of Act II the monster piano has
all but disappeared, though not the chair. By the Finale of
the third and final act, however, the accursed thing is back,
spoiling what the booklet rightly compares with the vigorous
end of Haydn’s Creation.
Then, as a further distraction, ‘Schubert’ regularly
opens the doors to allow the characters access to the stage
– some of them he even leads in blindfold until he deigns to
allow them to see. Next we have the composer dashing about delivering
speeches and arias to the performers. He even speaks some of
their lines. Charlemagne has to wait like a switched-off robot
in an un-emperor-like trance until ‘Franzl’ waves his speech
at him. Even in the Finale there is some silly stage-business
whereby Fierrabras is denied a copy of the vocal score until
almost too late.
Schubert’s librettist, Josef Kupelwieser, has already
created confusion by naming two of the characters Boland and
Roland, but the production adds to the confusion by giving look-alike
singers the same Schubert-like round glasses and dressing them
and ‘Schubert’ in identical clothes, down even to identical
waistcoats. Christian Schmidt, the stage- and costume designer
must have had the easiest task of anyone involved in the production.
I suppose that we ought to be grateful to Zürich
Opera and EMI for bringing us this recording at all. Even audio
recordings of Fierrabras have tended not to stay in the
catalogue for long – as far as I am aware, the last survivor,
a 2-CD DG set, has been deleted. Given its obscurity and the
complexity of the plot, one might at least have expected a plot-summary
in the booklet, but all we have is a 2-page general note, of
which only the last three short paragraphs give any indication
of the plot.
Of course we have recourse to the subtitles, but
I think we deserve more information in the booklet. The production
acknowledges the complicated nature of the love-tangles by having
a blackboard descend with the names of the lovers, linked with
lines and hearts. It might have been useful to have had this
diagram in the booklet.
We are not even given the length of each DVD or
the exact overall duration – merely ‘approximately 171 minutes’,
so I am unable to furnish you with the precise information that
we normally provide on Musicweb. There is not even a track summary
in the booklet; one may be found on the EMI
website, though with typos, such as Rachr for Rache.
I’m not sure how DVD1, track 16 can last for ‘2:60’ – wouldn’t
that be three minutes? Odder still, DVD2, track 21 is given
as ‘2:70’ and track 26 as ‘2:80’!
If you have come with me thus far and not been
put off, I do have some positive points to make. Chief among these
is the singing of Jonas Kaufmann as the eponymous hero, a young
singer who is already making an enviable reputation for himself,
not least as a fiery Don José at Covent Garden in Carmen.
He is appearing in La Traviata and Tosca at the
Garden and Decca have recently released his first recital recording,
a MusicWeb Recording of the Month (475 9666 : “Judging
from this debut recital Jonas Kaufmann is well equipped to be
among the leaders – and stay there” – see review).
He has also appeared as a fine Huon of Bordeaux in the Gardiner
recording of Weber’s Oberon, a work almost contemporary
with Fierrabras (47565635 – see review).
The rest of the cast sing well, though I cannot
help wondering if they would not have been better able to think
in role if they had been dressed in the appropriate make-believe
medieval garments, not as nineteenth-century Viennese, the men
in near-universal grey. The fairy-tale medievalism, loosely
based on La Chanson de Roland, may be tedious but that
is what the opera is about – and it is really no more tedious
than Handel’s Orlando or Vivaldi’s Ariosto-based Orlando
operas. It would be just as logical to try to remove the pseudo-medievalism
from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Otherwise there is some
token armour – a few breast-plates – Charlemagne wears a Christmas-cracker
crown, and the Moors are robed in North-African costume, complete
with Tommy Cooper fezes.
Lásló Polgár adopts a regal stance and his voice
conveys the same tone. None of the singing is less than adequate,
though occasionally not much more. Juliane Banse is probably
the weakest link, and then only when her voice is under pressure.
The jubilant Finale is especially well sung.
The orchestra offer good support. For some reason
Franz Welser-Möst never gelled in London, where he was unfairly
dubbed ‘worse than most’. He seems much more at home with the
Zürich Opera Orchestra. Apart from the Overture, a fine piece
often performed in its own right, I have no other recording
with which to compare, but I was more than happy with Welser-Möst’s
direction and the orchestral playing.
Schubert’s operas are hardly top repertoire material;
Fierrabras is probably never going to be one of your
favourite operas – it offers no competition for Weber’s der
Freischütz or even Oberon – but it is certainly worth
hearing in this version. Very little that Schubert wrote is
not worth hearing and anyone who knows Schubert’s symphonies
will recognise the hand of the composer here. Whether this version
of Fierrabras is also worth seeing depends on
your tolerance level for clever gimmicks.
The live recordings were made over a period of
time from November 2005 to March 2006. Whatever editing there
has been has been skilfully performed; I did not notice any
distracting splicing. One is hardly aware of the audience except
for brief moments of polite applause. The DVDs sound well enough
played via the television; played via an audio setup, they are
the equal of most live CD recordings. The orchestra are a trifle
too forward and the overall sound a touch dry, but these are
not serious problems.
The picture looks fine on an HD-ready TV with hdmi
up-scaling. No doubt we shall all have to switch to blu-ray
soon, now that it seems to be winning the format war, but I
don’t think anyone would be displeased with these EMI DVDs even
at 720p. Even the shimmer from Charlemagne’s waistcoat seems
to be the natural sheen of the material catching the light,
rather than the shimmer sometimes caused by a strong pattern.
I understand that these DVDs are on offer at less
than full price, which makes them more attractive. If there are
still gaps in your collection of Schubert’s Lieder, symphonies,
piano works or chamber music, I advise you to make them your priority.
Only if your Schubert collection is already fairly representative
of his best, should you try this version of Fierrabras.