Education Update, February 2003
by Irving Spitz
Fierrabras, Zürich, November 2002
The Zurich Opera Does It Again!
A riveting and innovative performance of Schubert’s rarely heard opera Fierrabras. In 1822, the director of the Court Opera Theatre in Vienna requested the 25 year-old Franz Schubert to compose a grand heroic romantic opera, Fierrabras, based on a German text. Schubert readily agreed, realizing that the road to his success as a composer lay through the theatre. Despite illness, Schubert completed his task in less than 9 months. The opera, however, was never staged and neither was Schubert ever paid for his efforts. Like so many other of his compositions, the opera fell into oblivion and was first performed only 74 years later. Recently, Fierrabras has been championed by conductor Claudio Abbado, who performed it in Vienna in 1988. Earlier this year, the Frankfurt opera also mounted a production.

The plot, which combines chivalry and honor, friendship and alienation, and war and love, is played out at the court of the Frankish King Charlemagne and the Moorish Prince Boland. Boland’s daughter, Florinda, is in love with the brave Frankish knight, Roland, whilst his son, Fierrabras has an eye on Emma, Charlemagne’s daughter. However Emma loves Eginhard, who is one of Charlemagne’s knights. Meanwhile, the Franks have been victorious over the Moors and Roland has taken Fierrabras prisoner. Subsequently, Eginhard, Roland and the other Frankish knights are captured by the Moors and condemned to death. Florinda tries to free the prisoners but only Eginhard manages to escape. He then returns with Fierrabras and other military forces and they liberate the imprisoned knights. At the end of the opera, Charlemagne and Boland conclude a peace. Roland is united with Florinda and Eginhard with Emma. Only the true hero, Fierrabras, is left alone.

The music is typically Schubertian–lyrical, melodic, songlike. Schubert lived under the gigantic shadow cast by Beethoven and not unexpectedly, the influence of Beethoven’s Fidelio is present in Fierrabras, both in the music and plot. In the final scene, for example, Charlemagne enters heralded by a solo trumpet, reminiscent of the famous trumpet fanfare with the arrival of Fernando in Fidelio. Florinda’s searching for Roland in the court of the Moor Boland also has its counterpart in Beethoven’s opera, when Leonora seeks the imprisoned Florestan.

Recently, the Opernhaus in Zurich staged a highly innovative, ingenious and successful production of this rarely performed opera. Christian Schmidt’s staging was simple yet elegant, revealing a small Biedermeier salon with an enormous piano and chair completely out of dimension. Defying usual convention, the director Claus Guth has placed the composer Schubert, played by actor Wolfgang Beuschel onstage. It was as if the audience was anticipating a “Schubertiad,” one of those famous musical gatherings organized by Schubert’s friends where his new compositions were performed. The large stage props within the confines of the room made Schubert appear very small, even childlike and this was precisely Guth’s intention. This resulted in a highly charged juxtaposition between the two father figures, Charlemagne and Boland, in the opera, and Schubert’s own father in reality, with whom, as is well known, Schubert had a complex relationship. Schubert himself directs the opera and plays an integral part of the proceedings, distributing musical notes and whispering into the ears of the singers. On occasion, when he feels he is losing control, he escapes and hides under the piano, listening to the proceedings from a distance. On other occasions, Schubert interrupts the progress of the opera. Despite being present on stage for the full duration, his acting was never monotonous.

All principals in the strong cast sang with ardor and impassioned lyricism. This is truly an ensemble opera and whether in their individual arias, duets, or ensembles, the singers all complemented one another. Sopranos Joanna Kozlowska (Emma) and Liuba Chuchrova (Florianda) sang the roles of the king’s daughters with great passion. The three young heroes, all dressed in similar costumes, were tenors Jonas Kaufmann (Fierrabras) and Christoph Strehl (Eginhard) and baritone Michael Volle (Roland), all of whom were in excellent voice. Particularly noteworthy was a magnificent portrayal of Charlemagne by bass-baritone László Polgár who sang with confidence, fluidity and assurance. The other father figure, the Moor Boland, was sung by Rolf Haunstein to great effect. The soloists were well supported by the outstanding male chorus. In the performance I attended, conductor Franz Welser Most was indisposed. His last minute replacement was Paolo Carignani, who conducted the recent production at the Frankfurt Opera. He did an extraordinary job keeping the music moving forward yet giving the voices full support.

This was an unforgettable compelling visual and vocal experience, an evening to be cherished. The Zurich Opera deserve a debt of gratitude for giving the opera-loving public an opportunity of attending such an innovative and exhilarating performance of a rarely staged opera. It was impossible to ask for more.

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