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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Euryanthe – Opera in three acts, OP. 81, J. 291 (1823)
King Ludwig VI — Stefan Cerny (bass)
Adolar — Norman Reinhardt (tenor)
Euryanthe — Jacquelyn Wagner (soprano)
Lysiart — Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Eglantine — Theresa Kronthaler (soprano)
Duchess of Burgundy — Eva-Maria Neubauer (actress)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Trinks
Christof Loy (stage direction)
Johannes Leiacker (settings)
Judith Weihrauch (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Sung in German with subtitles in English, German, French, Korean, Japanese
Filmed in High Definition; Picture: 1080i/16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen;
Sound: LPCM Stereo/ DTS-MA 5.1; Region code: A, B, C
rec. live, 12 & 15 December 2018, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0107V [167 mins]

Weber’s opera of medieval romance has always attracted a great deal of criticism despite its lovely music and a spectacular overture. The chief reason for this is Helmina von Chézy’s incomprehensible libretto, tied to what has often in the past seemed to me to be the silliest opera plot ever penned. The fact that Weber’s music has always transcended this mess has always struck me as something of a miracle. He would repeat the miracle again with the equally messy Oberon. That libretto was forced upon Weber against his misgivings by the British stage actor and impresario Charles Kemble, who along with librettist James Planché insisted that the London public would not tolerate anything other than a fantastic play with accompanying music in the vein of Purcell’s King Arthur. One gets the impression that Weber was a tad dominated by his librettists.

I approached this new video release with trepidation as I had recently seen a few photos of the production and decided it would be yet another awful affront to the dignity of an admittedly bizarre 19th century opera. Viewing the Blu-ray for the first time showed me how wrong I was to expect disappointment.

Christof Loy has done the opera a service in really thinking the work through in terms of the psychology of the characters and their motivations. The booklet reproduces a very thoughtful and interesting interview with the director which helped me to understand exactly what he was getting at in the staging. He has removed all of the medieval trappings from the work under which the traumatized psyche of the principals would become buried. The unit set is an elegantly simple, recessed room around which the four principals wander like the deeply haunted figures that Mr Loy finds them to be. I have to admit to being completely won over by this approach and for the first time that I can recall, Euryanthe no longer felt silly and pointless. Not everything is prefect however; I thought that having Lysiart sing his one big aria completely naked to be a step too far and a huge mistake. I have long had the opinion that nudity does not belong in opera. This is not from any sense of prudishness but from the practical standpoint that it totally destroys the carefully built up theatrical illusion and sense of character by jarringly have everyone suddenly focus on anatomy. This happens in the theater and doubly so in a video viewed at home.

The singers are a splendid group indeed. Jacquelyn Wagner is a true find as Euryanthe. Her soprano voice glows and soars in just the way one would hope. She presents an honest and stabilizing heroine and is helped by her physical beauty. There are times when I feel that her Euryanthe actually surpasses Jessye Norman’s on the excellent EMI recording for Marek Janowski. Norman Reinhardt’s Adolar is a veritable feast of lyrical singing. He delivers his phrases with elegant line and mellifluous tone. He is in every way preferable to Nicolai Gedda’s somewhat effortful sounding account of the role for Janowski. In addition, he bears the brunt of having to deliver a convincing account of Adolar’s bizarre behaviour around which the story revolves. He manages this superbly, no doubt assisted by the thoughtful directorial approach. Stefan Cerny is a very sympathetic and stabilizing presence as King Ludwig, singing with authoritative yet sensitive tone.

The villains of this opera have the hardest job of all to make things believable and here we have two very professional artists doing their best to make this happen. As Eglantine, Theresa Krontahller provides a bright tone coupled with a darkly attractive beauty which only adds to the impact she makes. She does a very convincing job of conveying the encroaching insanity of Eglantine without the reward of a true mad scene to really let rip. Vocally she copes very well with a role that demands the heavier voice of an Isolde or Turandot. Andrew Foster-Williams bears an equally difficult task to assume the bitter, anti-social outbursts of Lysiart. His acting is very physical and totally convincing. Vocally he copes well but the microphones catch a touch of gravel in his tone which is reminiscent of the late, lamented Theo Adam. Microphones tended to exaggerate that one tonal aspect, which was not apparent when he was singing in the opera house or concert hall. I can only hope that is also the case for the talented Mr Williams and that he will have as long and rewarding career as did Theo Adam.

Constantin Trinks directs a lovingly nurtured unfolding of Weber’s fantastic score. He essays a perfect balance of classical restraint with outright Wagnerian urgency and the orchestra with its very talented French horn section rises magnificently to the occasion. The Arnold Schoenberg choir really is on splendid form here and they enter into their stage roles with real abandon.

On video the only competition to this set is a DVD on the Dynamic label of a performance from Malta in 2002. For that performance there are a couple of singers who show strain in their voices but it does feature a really lovely production by Pier Luigi Pizzi which does not eschew the aesthetics of a medieval setting. For those who want to view something more attractive, that version might be preferable. There is definitely a place for an aesthetically pleasing staging of an opera; one should not be made to feel guilty by so many of today’s stage directors for enjoying them. Just as in painting, there is room for both the powerful, raw, and painful works along with the beautiful, idealistic ones. If we only have an unvaried diet of meaningful with a capital “M”, then in short order that too will lose all of its meaning. Having said that, I will be returning to this performance with pleasure.

The video and sound of this release are excellent but for English-speaking viewers the subtitles are unbelievably incomprehensible. Phrases such as “Reverence only faltering, named you earth’s sweetest Euryanthe” abound. On investigation, I found that Naxos chose to use an English translation that was created for performances at the Prince’s Theater in London in 1854. A perfectly good modern translation was available from the EMI Janowski recording or from the one on Dynamic that would not have resulted in me spending three hours trying to decipher what was actually meant by the archaic language. If I were Mr Loy, I would be most displeased by this as it works against everything that he achieved in his illuminating production.

Mike Parr

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