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
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.