Opera News, November 2005
Not only is John Eliot Gardiner’s Oberon the first recording of the opera played on “period” instruments, it is the first sung to the original English libretto. Weber composed the piece for Covent Garden, where it had its triumphant premiere in 1826, but in the long term, the piece didn’t catch on save in Germany, where the composer is venerated. Thus, previous recordings have been sung in German translation — a presentable option, granted, but hardly representative of the composer’s original intention. Another of Gardiner’s innovations — replacing the spoken dialogue with third-person narration — may put off some people from the start. (I wonder how this worked in the conductor’s 2002 Châtelet production, where he apparently used the same device.) But it’s handled carefully, never allowed to overlap the music — although we hear Oberon’s horn-call in some of the pauses, as we would have in the appropriate spot in the dialogue — and the narration does cut through some rather tangled exposition, especially in Act I. Narrator Roger Allam is a bit quiet but finds the happy medium between a microphoney stage whisper and a melodramatic rant, even where the narrative uncomfortably “recites dialogue” in parts of Act III.

In the booklet, Gardiner criticizes the tradition of giving this opera a “generalised Wagnerian interpretation,” correctly indicating that Huon and Reiza are as much successors to Tamino and Pamina as forerunners of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. But don’t be fooled; this isn’t one of those exercises in “authentic” miniaturization beloved of the musicologists. Despite his strictures, Gardiner has cast principal singers with full-sized voices and “modern” techniques, although they all offer a more varied, bel canto-esque approach to the music than most. Thus, Jonas Kaufmann’s Huon offers the ringing power, baritonal color and open-throated commitment of the full-sized heldentenor, yet he never gives the impression of singing “flat out,” at top volume: there’s always the sense of more voice in reserve. The big aria’s demands for flexibility — a stumbling block for many aspirants to the role — pose him no problem: once past the opening arpeggios, where a few notes are questionably tuned, he manages the coloratura accurately, if not always comfortably, and with some dash in the longest run. In the low range, he occasionally seems to be “taking it easy” by coming off the support; and, while he respects the thoughtful, subdued character of the Act II Preghiera, his attempt to rein the voice in turns it slightly tremulous.

Hillevi Martinpelto, the Reiza, has, over the past decade, carved herself a niche as a “dramatic soprano” for period performances. She has an appealing, limpidly expressive timbre in the midrange, opening into pure, shimmering top tones; and she’s not afraid to sing with vibrato. She has ample vocal presence and authority in “Ocean, thou mighty monster!”, which she and Gardiner shape in broad, sweeping arcs. She is equally fine in the more inward moments, projecting her lines in the first finale with serene warmth, sculpting the phrases of the Act III cavatina cleanly and affectingly.

The title character isn’t easy to bring off, especially on disc: since Oberon is the instigator of the drama rather than its focus, he risks disappearing into the background. Fortunately, Steve Davislim’s tenor, a basically lyric instrument with a low center, affords him the vocal metal (and mettle!) to maintain a strong profile. His lower range, like Kaufmann’s, sounds baritonal, making them difficult to distinguish in their one scene together. He aspirates his one run in Act III but breaks the spell on Huon and Reiza with real tenderness.

Frances Bourne is a reasonable Puck, even if she insists on restricting her grown-up soprano to as white a sound as possible. Below stairs, William Dazeley wraps Sherasmin’s music in a nice, resonant baritone, though he tends to “characterize” at the expense of a firmly bound legato, and one patch of nebulous intonation in the terzettino should have been corrected. As Fatima, Marina Comparato’s mezzo sounds small-scaled and undistinguished at first, but she improves markedly in her duet with Reiza. In Act III, her coloratura’s not bad, but she, too, tends to lapse into a pallid, semi-detached production.

Gardiner conducts with full-blooded energy and vivid character, though two full strophes of Act II’s lulling mermaids momentarily becalm the proceedings. The period orchestra brings some benefits, beginning in the overture: the horn blends warmly with the strings, whose later statement of the “big tune” is in turn more gently propelled and pointed than in standard readings. The edgy, open tone of the brass introducing Huon’s aria is bracing but goes too far in the blatty Act II opening, where the men’s chorus is also a bit noisy. Otherwise, the choral work is well disciplined, crisply articulate and tonally suave.

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