Opera UK
Fierrabras, Schubert
Juliane Banse (Emma), Twyla Robinson (Florinda), Irene Friedli (Maragond), Jonas Kaufmann (Fierrabras), Christoph Strehl (Eginhard), Michael Voile (Roland), László Polgár (Konig Karl), Gunther Groissbock (Boland), Ruben Drole (Brutamonte), Wolfgang Beuschel (Schubert), Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich Opera, c. Franz WelserMost,p. Gudrun Hartmann. d. Christian Schmidt, video director Thomas Grimm. EMI Classics 50096992.2 DVD (171 minutes) 
The task: to make viable a flawed opera, with its subject matter having little connection to an early 21 st-century audience. Gudrun Hartmann’s production puts it inside the composer’s head, and has Schubert (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Hopkins) act as master of ceremonies in his own creation. Has Schubert created the piece to elicit approval from his father (doubly personified by the inflexible figures of Karl and Boland, the Frankish and Moorish kings)? The three young male leads are Schubert doppelganger, and the whole is set in an early 19th-century Biedermeyer drawing room complete with grand piano (which moves around at Pountney-ish angles throughout the evening). It is like a domestic Musikabend, with a touch (but maybe not enough) of E.T.A. Hoffmann about it. Schubert introduces the players, blindfold from the sides of the stage, and sends them on their way, prompting their dialogue and arming them with sheet music, so they sing part of the time from copies. It’s an intriguing concept, and it could just work, except that the piece needs more visual contrast throughout a long evening and somehow more gung-ho early Romanticism in its approach. The society whence Schubert sprung was doubtless paternalistic and repressive, but maybe the act of writing chivalric operas in this period functioned as escapism, in which case, in this production, one feels the need of a more decisive coup de théâtre along the way. By the end of the evening the device of Schubert, the fat controller, becomes annoying: he is a spectre at his own feast, undermining what little dramatic pacing his creation has.

Franz Welser-Möst and his Zurich forces make the most of some arresting music, which contains surprising harmonic shifts and imaginative Weberish orchestration, and their way with some attractively lyrical portions is nuanced and beguiling, but even the most rabid Schubertian cannot pretend that the lyricism on offer here gets to the heart of the dramatic or emotional matter in the way that Schubert songs do, not that there is much heart of the matter to get to in this cardboard chivalric caper. It is very remote subject matter indeed; lots of knightly posturing, and Schubert’s pacing vitiates much of the energy. Melodically there is nothing very memorable, and Schubert is unable to place his lyrical moments convincingly. The end of the second act is interesting, with the feisty Florinda reporting on an offstage battle by means of an agitated spoken melodrama (much in vogue in early German Romantic opera). It is surprising and has (at last) some dramatic voltage, but coming at the end of an act, it cheats us of any sort of vocal climax. Beethoven and Weber’s use of spoken word accompanied by music is so much more dramatically placed in Fidelio and Der Freischütz.

At this point in this performance the thought occurs that the two female leads should have been cast the other way around—Twyla Robinson’s Florinda has attractive but shallow tone, but is overstretched and inaudible in the dramatic moments, and Juliane Banse’s passive drip Emma (not her fault, but Schubert’s) is sung with rich, alluring tone, which is decidedly unwieldy in Schubert’s intricate and surprising forays into the upper reaches. Vocal honours go to Christoph Strehl as the conflicted suitor Eginhard, who has much of the most lyrical music. He is the one male character who is a bit of a softie. Michael Volle makes much of little as Roland, but all the male characters are so upright and well meaning that you just want to slap them. Jonas Kaufmann shows real star quality as Fierrabras and sings his one aria in a lustrous baritonal tenor, but one wonders why the opera is not called Eginhard—or Roland—as the title character has so little to do. In the finale this is made explicit in the production: Schubert manically distributes music to the cast in the grand finale and repeatedly misses out Fierrabras, who has to make do with sharing copies with less exalted characters. It is a good joke, and it shows him as an outsider, yes, but it fatally exposes the opera, for all its occasional felicities and moments of interest, as misshapen. This is a thought-provoking version, but a bit of a long haul.

  www.jkaufmann.info back top