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Franz SCHUBERT (1787-1828)
Fierrabras - opera in three acts (1823)
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 Blu-ray 730804 [174:00]

Schubert famously spent many, many hours looking for success in the opera house, but never got very far during his lifetime. Fierrabras, with its setting of Christians vs Moors in the court of Charlemagne, never even made it to the stage. The intendant of the theatre pulling it because of the poor reception given to that year’s other opera of similar setting, Weber’s Euryanthe. It struggles to hold the stage due to the problems of its libretto, but it’s by far the most likely of Schubert’s theatre works to make it to a modern performance. This Salzburg production made big waves when it was produced in 2014. It helps to engender some limited reconsideration of the work. Yes, its story is undeniably clunky; but then, not really any more so than Fidelio, and at least with a Schubert opera you get to spend an entire evening in the company of one of the greatest melodists that music has ever known. Fierrabras has some particularly impressive ensembles, which come at key dramatic junctures but still manage to enrich rather than hold up the action, which is quite an achievement; and Schubert also shows himself to be very adept at handling the chorus, most famously (but by no means exclusively) in the Teures Vaterland chorus of the imprisoned Christian knights in the second act.

Peter Stein’s production is almost radical in its determination to present the story in an unadulterated form. You are squarely in the period of the story with monochrome sets and ninth century costumes, with the knights looking impressive in their full length chain-mail. At times I found it a little difficult to tell whether Stein was being genuinely historicist or gently ironic, and aspects of his stagecraft reminded me of Laurent Pelly’s rather smug take on Robert le Diable. He admits, however, that he wanted to place the focus onto the music rather than the staging and, refreshingly, in an extra film he says that in his production "there is no concept or any other nonsense," so there you have it!

If the music is the focus then that music is done very well. The Vienna Philharmonic play wonderfully for Ingo Metzmacher, though the confines of the Haus für Mozart don’t suit them, and the recorded sound is boxy at times. The singers are great, though. As Fierrabras Michael Schade is often heavy of voice, but not to the point of being unwieldy, and the garden scene at the end of the first act finds him at his best, playing the wounded hero in all his noble dignity. He is contrasted well with the beautiful light tenor of Benjamin Bernheim as Eginhard, who makes a breezy foil to all around him, and peaks in a lovely serenade in the first act. In Julia Kleiter both tenors are partnered by a glorious luxury voice, fabulously rich and opulent; dramatic yet also lyrical with a gorgeously pearly top. Dorothea Röschmann is unrecognisable in her Moorish garb, but sings as sweetly and beautifully as we have come to expect from her, and her dramatic aria in the second half is extraordinary. Markus Werba sings with typical beauty and warmth. Unusually for him his acting is rather wooden, though I suspect that’s primarily due to the restrictions of Stein’s production and his head-to-toe costume. Peter Kálmán is gritty and malevolent as Boland, and Georg Zeppenfeld booms with authority as Charlemagne and looks a treat in head-to-toe chain-mail with his crown welded on.

In short, Fierrabras is well worth exploring, and this film is as good a place to start as any, though one gripe is that the preponderance of white costumes on stage often makes the subtitles difficult to read. The only easily accessible alternative on DVD is Claus Guth’s rather fussy Zurich production, which reinterprets it as Schubert’s autobiography, but benefits from Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. However, no one who is serious about this opera (or should we say singspiel?) should be without Abbado’s groundbreaking live recording from the 1988 Vienna Festival. It’s audio only, but it’s electrifying.  There is also an EMI recording by Franz Welser-Möst (review). 

Simon Thompson

Previous review (DVD): Paul Corfield Godfrey



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