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
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
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.