Opera News, March 2006
Schubert: Fierrabras, Vienna, 27 November 2005
VIENNA – Fierrabras, Opernhaus Zürich, 11/27/05
In addition to melodic, Romantic symphonies and piano and chamber music of searing depth and unmatchable charm, Schubert knew how to write songs and song cycles that essentially amount to monodramas. Indeed, Die Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin are now frequently given full stagings. But when it came to opera, Schubert displayed a theatrical instinct so inept that it is shocking to learn that he began at least nineteen operas. Many were never completed; many were lost; many were never performed in Schubert’s thirty-one years.

Had he been granted a longer life and a competent librettist, Schubert might have been the great Germanic composer to bridge the gap between Fidelio and Der Fliegende Holländer. Certainly the score of Fierrabras (written in 1823, but unperformed until seventy years after the composer’s death) shows a master in the making. The music is glorious; Josef Kupelwieser’s libretto is ludicrous.

Set during the rule of Charlemagne, it’s a medieval cross-and-armor epic, sort of I Lombardi meets Giovanna d’Arco. There are foes named Roland and Boland, knights named Eginhard and Ogier, and a camp follower named Maragond who exists solely to participate in a duet in parallel thirds.

On November 27, at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Zurich Opera Orchestra offered a rare opportunity to hear the work in its entirety, including spoken dialogue, which stretched it to three and a half hours. Director Claus Guth prepared the dialogue, and there is a lot of it, sometimes spoken, or delivered in the form of a Melodram — intoned speech with orchestral underscoring.

Guth further plopped an actor dressed (ostensibly) as Schubert in front of the brass to scowl, snort isolated words and phrases to the singers or hand manuscript pages to them.

Not even that could detract from arias, duets, trios and huge ensembles of power, glory and incredible beauty. Brahms is foreshadowed, Weber saluted, Bellini surprisingly suggested, Beethoven deified. The work owes more than a passing debt to Fidelio and comes complete with a trumpet call at the drama’s high point and a revelation to equal Leonore’s “Töt’ erst sein Weib!” in Fierrabras’s announcement “Er ist mein Vater, halte ein!”

The accomplished vocal writing showcases a range of styles. Jonas Kaufmann was the heroic Fierrabras, showing a gleaming, dark, clarion tenor; Christoph Strehl was a perfect foil as Eginhard, with a sweet, lighter Mozartean instrument; the amazing, versatile Juliane Banse used her sensual, dusky soprano to create a three-dimensional Emma (Eginhard’s love interest); as Florinda, Twyla Robinson went at her treacherous music with a unique tone suggestive of Gruberova and Deutekom; veteran Laszlo Polgar, a suave Charlemagne, still commands with his trademark velvet basso cantante; Michael Volle’s gruff, dramatic Roland sailed over music that recalled Fidelio’s Pizarro; young German basso Günter Groissböck was a commanding, confident Boland.

Franz Welser-Möst did a commendable job leading this huge undertaking, but there was a spark missing: one felt too often as if we were attending a musical history lesson, when what was needed was passion.

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