Despite the continued popularity of Der Freischütz in German-speaking countries, are the magical mature operas of Carl Maria von Weber otherwise really so problematic, their libretti so unwieldy to explain their continued absence from the world’s stages? The enthusiastic ovations Sunday afternoon that greeted the conclusion of the second performance of the first US staging of Euryanthe in nearly a century at Bard Summerscape suggested that perhaps a reconsideration of Weber may be underway.
Weber’s 1823 grosse heroisch-romantische oper arrived at the Metropolitan during its fifth season in 1887 starring Lilli Lehmann in the title role. After four performances, it disappeared until Arturo Toscanini revived it in 1914 with Frieda Hempel as its unfairly scorned heroine. Even Toscanini’s advocacy couldn’t save the work from vanishing again after six performances. In 1970 Thomas Scherman’s scrappy Little Orchestra Society revived Euryanthe for concerts in Manhattan and Brooklyn with Frances Bible as the scheming Eglantine, William Lewis as Adolar and a young Teresa Kubiak as his beloved. Since then, US audiences have been waiting for another chance to hear this grand and intriguing work.
As music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and artistic co-director of Summerscape, Leon Botstein has been a tireless advocate for worthy symphonic and operatic works of the past that have slipped from public view. Although rare operas are regularly performed in concert during both the American Symphony Orchestra’s season and Summerscape, a fully staged revival has proved the irresistible centerpiece of each summer’s festival at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, about two hours north of New York City. Schumann’s Genoveva, Schrecker’s Der Ferne Klang, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Taneyev’s Oresteia are among the rare works seen there over the past decade.
Botstein and his team bravely tackled Weber’s penultimate opera, a sprawling melodic work, head on, shirking none of its occasionally head-scratching plot turns. After the success of Freischütz, the composer hoped to transcend that work’s folk origins by choosing a nobler story for his next work, one which would eschew dialogue in favor of a through-composed structure. He worked intensively with librettist Helmina von Chézy on Euryanthe, a work from the era of heroic chivalry about a fraught love quadrangle: the “good” knight Adolar and his betrothed Euryanthe are plagued by the “bad” Lysiart and Eglantine, both driven by their unrequited loves (he for Euryanthe, she for Adolar) to join forces to destroy the golden couple.
This relatively straightforward plot of jealousy and revenge is complicated by Emma, Adolar’s sister who killed herself after her lover died in battle. Her restless soul haunts her brother who confides her sad story to his fiancée. Seeking leverage over her rival, Eglantine wheedles Euryanthe into revealing all to her and then creeps into the remarkably accessible crypt to steal Emma’s ring which Lysiart then uses as evidence of his seduction of Euryanthe. She is then promptly denounced by Adolar and the entire court, but after wandering in the woods where they are attacked by a giant serpent (!), the star-crossed lovers are eventually reunited thanks to the crazed Eglantine confessing her part in the conspiracy.
Rather than seeking ways to tone down some of the plot’s quirkier kinks, director Kevin Newbury’s intensely focused staging (moved to the 19th century) instead embraced them. Emma’s back-story was acted out during the overture and her wraith-like presence (in the person of dancer Ann Chiaveri) haunted much of the opera while her glowing crypt was visited rather often by Eglantine. By having Emma hover rather than disappear after the first act, Newbury reminded the audience that her inability to rest is a crucial key to Adolar’s tortured psyche and his complex response to his betrothed’s “betrayal.” Euryanthe’s bathing the ring in her innocent tears during the final scene allows Emma to find longed-for rest so the lovers can then look forward to an unhaunted future (particularly as Lysiart has conveniently stabbed Eglantine before being allowed to flee).
Though strongly aided by Victoria Tzykun and Jessica Jahn’s simple, elegant set and costumes (respectively), not all of Newbury’s ideas were equally successful: transforming the attacking serpent in act III into the gnarly roots of a giant tree which slowly descends onto Adolar and Euryanthe was visually arresting but dramatically limp. However, the riveting conclusion to act II featured the searing scene of a denounced Euryanthe being humiliated and stripped by members of the male chorus who then marked her white slip with a scarlet cross.
Appealing as she was the virtuous maiden in the opera’s first half, radiant soprano Ellie Dehn really came into her own as the demoralized yet defiant Euryanthe of act III. She effortlessly commanded the quicksilver changes from the anguished duet with Adolar to her hushed, finely-spun kavatine “Hier dicht am Quell” to her soaring aria with chorus “Zu ihm! O weilet nicht!” when she at last glimpses hope for redemption. Based on my limited previous exposure to Dehn, I had not expected such a mature and commanding portrayal, one worthy of any opera house on the international circuit.
Nor had nearly twenty years of attending performances by William Burden prepared me for his handsomely glowing Adolar: the voice sounding huge, free and ringing. Here was no brainless hero but a man haunted by his sister’s self-destruction, a trauma which made him even more vulnerable to the false accusations flung by Lysiart. He sounded so right that one immediately wanted to hear him as Weber’s Max and Huon with perhaps Wagner’s Erik or even Lohengrin to come.
Subverting the usual light-dark paradigm, Newbury presented a brunette heroine preyed upon by a blonde villainess, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Eglantine. Vocally this dichotomy held as well—Dehn’s earthy sound contrasted strikingly with the bright (and loud) shine of Harmer’s. Though she might have more thoroughly embraced her character’s melodramatic malevolence, she fearlessly tackled Eglantine’s relentless music though she was nearly defeated by the florid flourishes that conclude her demonic first-act aria. However, she ended strongly in her final moment of “triumph”—one couldn’t help imagining a Harmer Ortrud, particularly as so much of Eglantine and Lysiart’s music prefigures that of Elsa’s wily nemesis and her braggart husband.
Peter Volpe made a forthright if occasionally wooly King Ludwig and Margaret Dudley a sparkling Bertha, but this strong cast was let down by an over-parted Ryan Kuster as Lysiart. Tackling a role well beyond his current abilities, the young singer forced his still-developing baritone, sounding old and sometimes hoarsely barking his demanding music, particularly “Schweigt, glüh’nden Sehnens wilde Triebe,” his baleful scene at the beginning of the second act. Like Harmer, he, too, was stymied by the coloratura at the conclusion of his aria. One hopes he will not wade into this kind of dramatic music again for quite a few years.
For all his intrepid curiosity in programming, unfortunately Botstein remains a steadfastly earthbound, plodding conductor. Though he drew fine playing from his orchestra, all too often one wanted more urgency, more forward momentum, particularly in the diffuse act I. As Weber’s music settled and cohered into something more focused and powerful, so too Botstein found a more propulsive form, particularly in the despairing, yet moving final act. The vibrant chorus, particularly the male contingent, was a joy throughout.
Despite its spotty history in the US, Euryanthe never entirely disappeared. Many who know it at all will have discovered it via the strongly cast 1974 studio recording with Jessye Norman, Rita Hunter, Nicolai Gedda and Tom Krause, conducted by Marek Janowski.
A particularly vivid case is made by its formidable pair of villains.
The earliest “complete” recording—from 1949—features the sterling Maria Reining as the beleaguered title heroine.
As much as I admire Hunter, my favorite Eglantine remains Inge Borkh whose ferocious portrayal is available via a live performance from the 1954 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.
Although Fritz Stiedry’s 1955 broadcast of Euryanthe has the controversial Marianne Schech as Eglantine, its claim to fame is its heroine sung by the pre-Lucia Joan Sutherland.
As recently as 2001, Karita Mattila recorded two of Euryanthe’s a scenes (along with Agathe’s and Rezia’s) on her collection of “German Romantic Arias.”
One regrets that Mattila never did a complete Euryanthe or Oberon, but at least we have a tremendously appealing recording of the latter by John Eliot Gardiner with Jonas Kaufmann as a glorious Huon.
Connoisseurs of Weber’s vocal music should hunt down a fascinating rare out-of-print 1986 CD of “Virtuose Konzertarian von Carl Maria von Weber” by coloratura Karin Ott (Karajan’s Queen of the Night) on the ex librus label.
Finally, mention of Oberon, my favorite Weber opera, propels me to include some of the most enthralling Weber singing available: a chunk of Anita Cerquetti’s blazing Rezia from a complete performance in Italian conducted by Vittorio Gui.
Does this exciting Euryanthe at Bard portend a ‘new future” for Weber on the world’s stages? One might like to think so and even as soon as next April the Frankfurt Opera will mount an Euryanthe with Eric Cutler and Heidi Melton as Adolar and Eglantine—so perhaps a trend has begun!
Photos: Cory Weaver