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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786–1826)
Euryanthe - Grand heroic-romantic opera in three acts (1823)
Siegfried Vogel (bass) – King Louis VI; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Adolar, Count of Nevera; Jessye Norman (soprano) – Euryanthe von Savoyen, his bride; Tom Krause (bass) – Lysiart, Count of Forest; Rita Hunter (mezzo) – Eglantine von Puiset; Renate Krahmer (soprano) – Bertha, a country girl; Harald Neukirch (tenor) – Rudolf, a knight; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden/Marek Janowski
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, June and July 1974
German libretto enclosed
BERLIN CLASSICS 0184412BC [3 CDs: 64:53 + 45:20 + 63:59]
Experience Classicsonline

Wilhelmine (or Helmina as she called herself) von Chézy (1783 – 1856) managed to immortalize herself in the annals of music through two disastrous collaborations with leading composers of her time. Franz Schubert wrote incidental music for her play Rosamunde and Carl Maria von Weber wrote the grand opera Euryanthe to a libretto by her. Rosamunde is permanently lost and obviously mourned by nobody, but Schubert’s music survived thanks to the fact that it is so immediately appealing self-contained. Weber’s Euryanthe is at a clear disadvantage, since it is obvious that an opera can’t survive without a libretto. There have been attempts made to rescue it but so far without success. Inger Sørensen writes in the Danish “Gads Operaleksikon”: ‘… one of the most improbable and incomprehensible texts in the history of opera …’ and this seems to be the common opinion. Horst Seeger, in his notes to the present issue, tries to modify this view somewhat, pointing first and foremost to the fact that stories of this kind were in line with the attitudes of the Romantics, that she was a conscientious writer – also known in her days as a poet of some importance and that Weber actually approved of what she did – not without objections, however: ‘Act III, for example, was revised eleven times, and finally Weber himself intervened … to rebuild the finale … according to his own lights.’ Considering this it is a shame that the result didn’t become better.
It should be added that the plot wasn’t Helmina von Chézy’s own invention. The story can in fact be traced back to the early 13th century and Boccaccio as well as Shakespeare have used motifs and it has been told in several French stories. Helmina drew on an early French romance, published by Comte Louis de Tressans in 1780. The process of the libretto’s coming into being is recorded in detail in the booklet notes. So what’s wrong with it? Try this:

‘Victory celebrations are in progress at the court of Louis VI. Adolar, Count of Nevers, wistfully thinks of his betrothed, Euryanthe. His secret rival, Lysiart of Forest, questions Euryanthe’s constancy and boasts that he can lead her astray. Adolar challenges him to a duel, but instead they agree to stake all their possessions on the result of Lysiart’s efforts to prove his claim.

In the Palace of Nevers, Euryanthe sings of her longing for Adolar. Eglantine, representing the unjust treatment meted out to her father, is by no menas as sympathetic to Euryanthe as the latter believes. Secretly in love with Adolar, Eglantine unlocks a secret from Euryenthe. Adolar’s sister, Emma, who killed herself by drinking poison from her ring following the death of her lover, will not find rest in her tomb until a girl innocently accused wets the ring with tears. By making use of this secret, which Euryanthehas pledged to keep locked in her heart, Eglantine hopes to take her revenge on Adolar.
At the King’s request, Lysiart arrives to conduct Euryanthe to the royal palace. He has almost come to regret his wager, but his hatred of Adolar proves stronger. Seeing Eglantine emerge from Emma’s tomb with the accursed ring, he throws in his lot with hers.
Adolar and Euryanthe are reunited, but Lysiart intervenes, claiming to have won his wager and displaying the ring as proof. Euryanthe protests her innocence, but in Adolars eyes she is guilty and so he abandons her and gives up his possessions to Lysiart.
In a rocky gorge Adolar is about to slay Euryanthe who has tried in vain to convince him of her faithfulness. When a huge serpent appears, Euryanthe throws herself between it and Adolar to save him. Adolar is deeply moved, but he goes his own way to find inner peace. The King and his hunting party discover Euryanthe. Before she collapses in utter exhaustion, she discloses Eglantine’s betrayal. The King promises to bring about her reconciliation with Adolar and orders the huntsmen to take Euryanthe to Adolar. A peasant wedding is taking place near the Palace of Nevers. Adolar, aimlessly roaming about, enters the scene. As the conflict with Lysiart mounts in intensity, Adolar challenges him to combat. At this moment the King arrives, pretending that Euryanthe has died. Now the treacherous Eglantine confesses her crime whereupon Lysiart, enraged, stabs her fatally and is taken into custody. Adolar is crazed with grief, but at this moment Euryanthe enters, alive and well, and rushes into his arms.’
On this mishmash Weber lavished all his skill and talent, writing a grandiose, through-composed three act opera. His other two full length operas, Der Freischütz and Oberon are Singspiele, i.e. there is spoken dialogue, and that also goes for his early Abu Hassan. It is large scale music with expressive recitatives, long arias and extended ensembles with spectacular writing for the chorus. The overture, the only music from this opera can be claimed to be well known, with some typical lyrical episodes in the middle and powerful contrapuntal writing. There is also some ballet music and a fresh wedding march. The hunters’ chorus in act III is a kind of sequel to the one in Der Freischütz and would be an attractive feature in a concert with orchestra and chorus, why not at the Last Night of the Proms?
The recitatives are more than just preliminaries before the arias; they are flexibly written with frequent arioso passages and several of the arias are outstanding creations – not so immediately melodious and folk music attractive as those in Der Freischütz, but Eglantine’s recitative and aria Betörte, die an meine Liebe glaubt … Er konnte mich um sie verschmähn CD 1 tr. 13) is fully comparable to the better known Ocean aria from Oberon, highly dramatic and with some hazardous coloratura. Lysiart’s long scene that opens act II is also dramatic writing in the top flight – also with a long arioso section. Euryanthe’s beautiful cavatina in act III is another piece that should be attractive for recital purposes.
Weber was outstanding among early 19th century opera composers in the German speaking world – Beethoven possibly excluded but his Fidelio is more epic than truly dramatic – and it is so sad that his works should be marred by inferior librettos. Der Freischütz is however still played, at least in Germany, and there are a number of fine recordings, and the others are well worth the outlay for the quality of the music. I have owned this recording of Euryanthe – as far as I know the only existing one – for almost two decades and in all honesty I have to admit that it hasn’t been played that frequently. But when I have searched it out I have invariably admired it and the performance can hardly be bettered. The then East German choral and orchestral forces are superb. Marek Janowski, first established himself as a major conductor when he was Music Director at Freiburg and at Dortmund Opera (1973-79) and this recording was made at the beginning of that period. He sculptures the music admirably and injects the playing and singing with dramatic verve.
The cast is headed by the young Jessye Norman, then not yet 30, and she is glorious all through the opera, singing with noble tone and fine nuances and her recitatives are always expressive. The evil Eglantine is sung with great intensity by Rita Hunter, well known for her Brünnhilde at ENO, a role she also sang at Metropolitan. The cast list describes her as mezzo-soprano but to my ears she certainly sounds like the dramatic soprano she always was. Tom Krause actually sounds as the bass the cast list describes him as, and he is in excellent form throughout, Siegfried Vogel is an acceptable King and Renate Krahmer a charming and fresh voiced country girl. The one comparative disappointment is Nicolai Gedda as Adolar. He is truly heroic and as always expressive with words but his actual tone is hard and strained. He is however deeply involved and his soft singing, on the few occasions that he is allowed to sing below forte, is as agreeable as always.
The recording is excellent, the notes, from which I have culled much of the background information and quoted the synopsis, illuminating. The booklet includes the complete libretto in German but no translations.
As an opera Euryanthe may not be among the top-ten recommendations, not even the top-100, but as a performance of Euryanthe, this recording can be wholeheartedly welcomed.
Göran Forsling


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