John Steane
Weber: Oberon
Hillevi Martinpelto sop Reiza ; Frances Bourne mez Puck ; Marina Comparato mez Fatima ; Katharine Fuge mez Mermaid ; Steve Davislim ten Oberon ; Jonas Kaufmann ten Huon ; William Dazeley bar Sherasmin Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner Philips New CD 475 6563PH2 (123 minutes) Reviewed: Awards 2005
A fine set that overcomes the many problems posed by this magical opera
In the opera, Sir Huon has only to blow his magic horn (if he can find it) and Oberon will come to the rescue. On stage, the opera itself stands much in need of a similarly magical way out of its many problems. The fairy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is crossed with medieval chivalry, romantic aspiration and a setting of Arabian Nights. The scene is forever changing, and the musical idiom shifts from the purest moonshine (foretelling Mendelssohn) to the kind of cosmic grandeur that later spelt Wagner. In the original version, spoken dialogue keeps up the dramatic pretence, but that’s all it is, for the characters and situations have little chance of gaining even the credibility of suspended disbelief.

In this version, as at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, the spoken dialogue is removed and a narrator’s voice substituted. It works well (better than at Edinburgh) because the speaker can use a quiet, intimate, story-teller’s voice, and we probably find it easier to accept this as a convention than to acquiesce in an attempt to make theatrical realism out of it. In this form, too, we listen without distraction to the music, and find ample delight in that.

The famous overture isn’t typical, still less ‘Ocean, thou mighty monster’, the soprano’s equally famous aria. The distinctive idiom of Oberon lies more in its choruses of elves and elemental spirits, and in numbers like the Quartet in Act 2 and the charming duet for Fatima and Sherasmin. Depth of feeling is there in Huon’s prayer and Rezia’s cavatina (the heroic element of the ‘big’ solos somehow less germane). But altogether a good performance – such as this is – leaves little doubt that the work deserves its revival: and it would be, surely, a very resolute purist who could entirely banish the stark biographical facts. The premiere took place at Covent Garden on April 12, 1826, and by May 30 Weber was lying dead at Great Portland Street.

The immediate rival (the strongly cast 1971 Kubelík set – DG, 12/91 – is no longer listed) is under Marek Janowski. Gardiner is more poetic, the fairies lighter on their feet, the quieter passages more private. Recorded at a lower level, it makes more of contrast between relaxations (in the Mermaids’ song, for instance) and tensions (good at the gathering storm). The soloists are less forwardly placed but characterise vividly in compensation.

Best is Jonas Kaufman’s Huon. The tenor is supposed to possess the heft of a Tannhäuser while performing graceful flourishes in the manner of Rossini’s Count Almaviva. Kaufman brings all the lyrical sweetness and technical skill for that part of it, and can still produce extra power and ring for the heroics. The heroine is sung with less distinction by Hillevi Martinpelto. Ideally the part calls for a voice of melting beauty (a Tiana Lemnitz perhaps) for the ‘vision’ solo and the cavatina, and the strength and nobility of a Brünnhilde in the ‘Ocean’ aria: this Rezia falls rather ineffectually between.

The others do well, the Fatima taking full advantage of her two attractive solos and the Oberon keeping his voice light and distinct from Huon. The Monteverdi Choir make a point of singing in character and with attention to the dramatic situation. Perhaps the decisive factor for many will be language: this performance is sung in English, which for once can be claimed to be authentic.

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