Opera News April 2008
Banse, Robinson; Kaufmann, Strehl, Volle, Polgár; Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich Opera, Welser-Möst. Production: Guth/Hartmann. EMI Classics 5009699, 171 mins., subtitled 
"Here lie rich gifts and fairer hopes," sighs Schubert's epitaph — but in lied, chamber music and symphony, the achievements of his thirty-one years stand with anybody's. Of opera (which he hoped would make him rich, or famous) we have only hints of what might have been — a clutch of wobbly little singspiels and two grand operas on librettos appalling even by the standards of early German Romantic opera. The plot of Fierrabras (1823), the latter of these, is devious without rewarding close attention — love is variously stymied by religious and social differences, but everyone is heroic and honorable; disaster is averted when the Moors spontaneously become Christian. However, the music, always charming and of its period (distant horn calls out of Fidelio), lacks theatrical urgency. Also preventing popular circulation, there are few extractable arias: most of Fierrabras consists of ensemble, chorus and spoken dialogue over orchestral background, though each turn of musical phrase is delectably Schubertian.

All this being so, the wrenching of time and place and story typical of European opera staging can hardly hurt. This recent handsome Zurich production takes Fierrabras from Charlemagne's era to Schubert's, and the principal (albeit non-singing) character is … Schubert. The tale of knight errantry and siege is set in a Biedermeier study with striped paper, wainscot, grand piano and cuckoo clock, and if Schubert seems nervous there, perhaps it's because everything is three times life size, and getting to chairs or keyboard requires a scramble. (Hanging the piano from the ceiling during prison scenes also provides, um, suspense.) The characters — Christian paladins wearing Schubert's waistcoat and glasses, Moors wearing fezzes and dressing gowns — are evidently figments of his imagination, whom he introduces and guides through the tale while composing it. The two rival monarchs are unsympathetic paternal figures whom Schubert desperately tries to placate.

Vocally, the men are most interesting here, especially Jonas Kaufmann as the tormented, unloved but honorable Fierrabras, giving notice of a tenor of range and flexibility, and László Polgár as the king whose perverse willfulness is expressed by an anchoring bass. Twyla Robinson is sympathetic as a noble Moorish princess, but her light, sweet instrument does not possess the heroic weight to make the role effective (I suspect Schubert wanted a Leonore here), while Juliane Banse, as Charlemagne's wayward daughter, has an unattractive chalkiness in her upper register but holds her own very well in ensembles. Chorus and orchestra make the most of Schubert, but then they have much of the loveliest music.

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