Musicweb International
Brian Wilson
Schubert: Fierrabras
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fierrabras, Op.76 (1823)

König Karl (Charlemagne) – László Polgár
Emma – Juliane Banse
Roland – Michael Volle
Eginhard – Christoph Strehl
Boland – Günther Groisböck
Fierrabras – Jonas Kaufmann
Florinda – Twyla Robinson
Maragond – Irène Friedli
Brutamonte – Ruben Drole
Schubert – Wolfgang Beuschel
Chor des Opernhauses Zürich
Orchester der Oper Zürich/Franz Welser-Möst
Production by Claus Guth; directed by Gudrun Hartmann.
rec. live at Zurich Opera House, November and December 2005 and March 2006.
Schubert was a great fan of the opera. He attended the première of Beethoven’s Fidelio in its final form and was familiar with the operas of Mozart, Salieri and Glück. His own operas remain the Cinderellas among his works. Fierrabras, commissioned and completed in 1823, had to wait until 1988 for its first performance; it was returned, probably unseen, by the theatre manager Barbaja. It has something of the appearance of an unfinished work – the librettist didn’t even get the spelling of the Spanish word Fierabras (from fiera, wild) correct. Yet the same year, 1823, saw the composition of much of the song-cycle die schöne Müllerin, so we can hardly blame the serious illness which debilitated Schubert for much of the year.

First the bad news. This production is too clever for its own good – so gimmicky that, well before the end of the first DVD, I could watch it no longer and reverted to playing the sound alone via my audio system.

I’m sure it was very clever to insert Wolfgang Beuschel as Franz Schubert himself into the action, but it was too much of a distraction for me. Presumably it was felt that the opera-going public would not understand this little-known work without lots of stage business. In fact, the opposite is true of operas of this period – Weber’s Oberon is all the better for being cut down to size.

During the overture we see ‘Schubert’ working on the score; at least, this means that we are spared too many shots up the orchestral players’ noses, though there are a few of these too. As the camera pans away, we see the apparently diminutive composer seated on a huge chair at a monster piano. No doubt the producer is reminding us that he has seen the caricature of the composer dwarfed by his friend, the singer Vogl, but the monster chair and piano remain on stage for most of the action. Why do we need them? Apart from allowing Charlemagne to mount the huge chair to deliver his victory speech, not at all; they just get in the way, physically limiting the stage space and acting as a visual distraction.

Because of the difficulty of getting the monster piano off the stage, scene changes are announced merely by projecting the name of the venue onto the back wall of the stage. Of course, the Elizabethan theatre suffered from similar limitations – it didn’t even have back-projection – but the playwrights, aware of the problem, wrote the locations into the words of the characters. Even then, Shakespeare, who uses the Chorus in Henry V to ask us to excuse his audacity in presenting epic events within the wooden ‘O’, would probably have thought it ridiculous for a modern opera house to impose these limits on itself. In military terms, of course, a self-inflicted wound is a serious crime.

Even when the giant piano is hoisted off the stage, as in the picture on the front cover, the distraction factor is not diminished – to leave it dangling in the air at a crazy angle as it slowly ascends is even more distracting. That it looks like an up-scaled replica of the kind of piano that Schubert would have played is irrelevant.

By the beginning of Act II the monster piano has all but disappeared, though not the chair. By the Finale of the third and final act, however, the accursed thing is back, spoiling what the booklet rightly compares with the vigorous end of Haydn’s Creation.

Then, as a further distraction, ‘Schubert’ regularly opens the doors to allow the characters access to the stage – some of them he even leads in blindfold until he deigns to allow them to see. Next we have the composer dashing about delivering speeches and arias to the performers. He even speaks some of their lines. Charlemagne has to wait like a switched-off robot in an un-emperor-like trance until ‘Franzl’ waves his speech at him. Even in the Finale there is some silly stage-business whereby Fierrabras is denied a copy of the vocal score until almost too late.

Schubert’s librettist, Josef Kupelwieser, has already created confusion by naming two of the characters Boland and Roland, but the production adds to the confusion by giving look-alike singers the same Schubert-like round glasses and dressing them and ‘Schubert’ in identical clothes, down even to identical waistcoats. Christian Schmidt, the stage- and costume designer must have had the easiest task of anyone involved in the production.

I suppose that we ought to be grateful to Zürich Opera and EMI for bringing us this recording at all. Even audio recordings of Fierrabras have tended not to stay in the catalogue for long – as far as I am aware, the last survivor, a 2-CD DG set, has been deleted. Given its obscurity and the complexity of the plot, one might at least have expected a plot-summary in the booklet, but all we have is a 2-page general note, of which only the last three short paragraphs give any indication of the plot.

Of course we have recourse to the subtitles, but I think we deserve more information in the booklet. The production acknowledges the complicated nature of the love-tangles by having a blackboard descend with the names of the lovers, linked with lines and hearts. It might have been useful to have had this diagram in the booklet.

We are not even given the length of each DVD or the exact overall duration – merely ‘approximately 171 minutes’, so I am unable to furnish you with the precise information that we normally provide on Musicweb. There is not even a track summary in the booklet; one may be found on the EMI website, though with typos, such as Rachr for Rache. I’m not sure how DVD1, track 16 can last for ‘2:60’ – wouldn’t that be three minutes? Odder still, DVD2, track 21 is given as ‘2:70’ and track 26 as ‘2:80’!

If you have come with me thus far and not been put off, I do have some positive points to make. Chief among these is the singing of Jonas Kaufmann as the eponymous hero, a young singer who is already making an enviable reputation for himself, not least as a fiery Don José at Covent Garden in Carmen. He is appearing in La Traviata and Tosca at the Garden and Decca have recently released his first recital recording, a MusicWeb Recording of the Month (475 9666 : “Judging from this debut recital Jonas Kaufmann is well equipped to be among the leaders – and stay there” – see review). He has also appeared as a fine Huon of Bordeaux in the Gardiner recording of Weber’s Oberon, a work almost contemporary with Fierrabras (47565635 – see review).

The rest of the cast sing well, though I cannot help wondering if they would not have been better able to think in role if they had been dressed in the appropriate make-believe medieval garments, not as nineteenth-century Viennese, the men in near-universal grey. The fairy-tale medievalism, loosely based on La Chanson de Roland, may be tedious but that is what the opera is about – and it is really no more tedious than Handel’s Orlando or Vivaldi’s Ariosto-based Orlando operas. It would be just as logical to try to remove the pseudo-medievalism from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Otherwise there is some token armour – a few breast-plates – Charlemagne wears a Christmas-cracker crown, and the Moors are robed in North-African costume, complete with Tommy Cooper fezes.

Lásló Polgár adopts a regal stance and his voice conveys the same tone. None of the singing is less than adequate, though occasionally not much more. Juliane Banse is probably the weakest link, and then only when her voice is under pressure. The jubilant Finale is especially well sung.

The orchestra offer good support. For some reason Franz Welser-Möst never gelled in London, where he was unfairly dubbed ‘worse than most’. He seems much more at home with the Zürich Opera Orchestra. Apart from the Overture, a fine piece often performed in its own right, I have no other recording with which to compare, but I was more than happy with Welser-Möst’s direction and the orchestral playing.

Schubert’s operas are hardly top repertoire material; Fierrabras is probably never going to be one of your favourite operas – it offers no competition for Weber’s der Freischütz or even Oberon – but it is certainly worth hearing in this version. Very little that Schubert wrote is not worth hearing and anyone who knows Schubert’s symphonies will recognise the hand of the composer here. Whether this version of Fierrabras is also worth seeing depends on your tolerance level for clever gimmicks.

The live recordings were made over a period of time from November 2005 to March 2006. Whatever editing there has been has been skilfully performed; I did not notice any distracting splicing. One is hardly aware of the audience except for brief moments of polite applause. The DVDs sound well enough played via the television; played via an audio setup, they are the equal of most live CD recordings. The orchestra are a trifle too forward and the overall sound a touch dry, but these are not serious problems.

The picture looks fine on an HD-ready TV with hdmi up-scaling. No doubt we shall all have to switch to blu-ray soon, now that it seems to be winning the format war, but I don’t think anyone would be displeased with these EMI DVDs even at 720p. Even the shimmer from Charlemagne’s waistcoat seems to be the natural sheen of the material catching the light, rather than the shimmer sometimes caused by a strong pattern.

I understand that these DVDs are on offer at less than full price, which makes them more attractive. If there are still gaps in your collection of Schubert’s Lieder, symphonies, piano works or chamber music, I advise you to make them your priority. Only if your Schubert collection is already fairly representative of his best, should you try this version of Fierrabras.


 back top