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Franz SCHUBERT (1787-1828)
Fierrabras - opera in three acts (1823) [164.00]
Michael Schade (tenor) – Fierrabras; Julia Kleiter (soprano) – Emma; Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) – Charlemagne; Markus Werba (baritone) – Roland; Benjamin Bernheim (tenor) – Eginhard; Peter Kálmán (bass) – Boland; Dorothea Röschmann (soprano) – Florinda; Marie-Claude Chappuis (mezzo) – Maragond; Manuel Walser (baritone) – Brutamonte; Franz Gruber (tenor) – Ogier; Helmut Höllreigl (bass) – Moorish captain; Secil Ilker, Wilma Maller (sopranos) – Two maidens; Michael Wilder (bass) – Knight
Vienna State Opera Concert Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 2014
Extra: Making of Fierrabras [10.16]
C MAJOR DVD 730708 [71.52 + 100.38]

Schubert’s operas have always constituted the least explored part of his output. This has not infrequently occasioned surprise when one considers the universal popularity of his massive output of songs, many of which display a solid dramatic sense. The blame has been generally ascribed to the dismal quality of the libretti he was compelled – or chose – to set. It has to be conceded that the text and construction of Fierrabras, concocted from a couple of old mediaeval romantic sagas, leaves a very great deal to be desired. In that respect it bears a considerable resemblance to Weber’s contemporary and slightly earlier Euryanthe. The latter work features some more adventurous material notably in the music for the villainous couple which anticipates in some ways the music for the opening of Act Two of Lohengrin. There is nothing in Fierrabras which displays quite the same degree of originality but the music nevertheless contains much enchanting and exciting material. The opera has already become moderately familiar as the result of a DG audio recording under Claudio Abbado also based on a live performance but with the spoken dialogue omitted.

Given the relative unfamiliarity of the work and its generally weak dramatic construction, it would be tempting for a producer to jettison the original scenario with its extensive spoken dialogue — and melodrama which clearly shows the influence of Weber’s Freischütz — in favour of a modern ‘concept’. Peter Stein began his career as an operatic producer as one of the pioneers of Regietheater, but abandoned this style in a series of presentations for Welsh National Opera which while continuing to display originality and careful consideration nevertheless displayed a welcome willingness to trust in the probity of the composer’s and librettist’s original scenarios. His Otello was broadcast on television, and richly deserves issue on commercial DVD, as do his subsequent productions for WNO of Falstaff and Peter Grimes. His production of Pelléas et Mélisande, filmed under studio conditions, remains the most recommendable version of that opera for repeated home viewing. This production of Fierrabras deserves to join that company, with sets and costumes which remain true to the original period and which allow Schubert to stand on his own feet without any attempt to impose a dubiously relevant modern interpretation. The sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer evoke the atmosphere of nineteenth century lithographs, and the costumes by Annamaria Heinrich have a pre-Raphaelite feel. The mainly monochrome tones are somewhat dimly lit by Joachim Barth, but it is better to see the predominantly pastel shades that result than the garish and often ugly primary colours which afflict so many modem productions. The original stage production attracted its share of critical brickbats from commentators who complained about its lack of ‘originality’.

Stand on its own feet Fierrbras certainly does. The inclusion of the — sensibly abridged — spoken dialogue binds the opera together more effectively than Abbado managed to do. Stein encourages his singers to interact with each other with plenty of feel for theatrical and dramatic development. There is not so much he can do with Schubert’s frankly pedestrian recitatives — especially in the First Act — but the writing for both soloists and chorus has plenty of life, and the orchestration is both imaginative and effective. The conducting of Ingo Metzmacher exploits this to the full. There is no feeling of special pleading here, and the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, as one might expect, has more solid body and excitement than Abbado’s excellent but less full-sounding Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The singing is fully equal to that on the Abbado recording, and Michael Schade in the title role is both more mellifluous and honeyed of tone than Josef Protschka on DG. Schade is an excellent interpreter of this sort of repertoire as evidenced a couple of years ago by his Max in Der Freischütz. His Mozartian style is fully capable of coping with Schubert’s occasionally coloratura-like elaborations of the vocal line. Metzmacher similarly scores over Abbado in his casting of Charlemagne, with Georg Zeppenfeld here more solid in tone than Abbado’s rather woolly Robert Holl. Otherwise Abbado boasts a starrier cast including Karita Mattila, Cheryl Studer, Robert Gambill and Thomas Hampson but none of the singers here are comprehensively outclassed. Julia Kleiter, Dorothea Röschmann, Benjamin Bernheim and Markus Werba are particularly impressive as the young lovers and the many smaller roles are convincingly taken.

Röschmann displays positively Verdian fire in her aria Die Brust, gebeugt von Sorgen which leads into a beautiful short unaccompanied male chorus in Schubert’s best partsong style. She is equally impressive in the melodrama that closes the Second Act. The end of the Third Act, with offstage trumpet proclaiming the imminent arrival of rescue, and the final ensemble of reconciliation and rejoicing, clearly show that Schubert had studied Fidelio closely and benefited from it. It is a tragedy that the failure in Vienna of Weber’s Euryanthe led to the abandonment of the proposed production of Fierrabras during Schubert’s lifetime. Whatever the shortcomings of the libretto, the quality of the by no means unadventurous music would surely have done much to establish the impoverished composer’s reputation.

As a recording of Fierrabras this is probably the best way to approach the opera; the inclusion of the spoken dialogue and the presence of the visual element and subtitles certainly enable the music to make more dramatic impact than in Abbado’s purely audio recording. Those who already possess the earlier version may well find no need to add this video to their collections but if Abbado has whetted their appetites for the work they should certainly consider doing so. I am not altogether sure however why the opera has been split over two DVDs, with the Second and Third Acts and brief documentary allocated to a second disc.

I have not seen the only listed video alternative, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst from Zurich Opera on Warner (review). Although that manages to get the complete opera onto a single disc the cover illustration shows an updated production in singularly dull-looking sets which I don’t imagine packed anything like the impact in Salzburg – although some critics will doubtless have disagreed. In the short documentary bonus Stein defends his decision to sidestep the obvious modern parallels with Christian-Islamic conflict in favour of the primacy that Schubert allocates to the two stories of thwarted love. This goes to prove that he has not failed to consider the former but at the same time he has not allowed those parallels to distort his judgement.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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