OPERA NEWS, March 2003
Fierrabras, Zürich, performance 22  November 2002
Fierrabras (from 1823, the period of Die Schöne Müllerin) is the third opera by Schubert produced during Alexander Pereira's reign at Zurich's Opernhaus. Heard November 22, the well-received production proved strikingly intelligent, redeeming Fierrabras's much-criticized libretto (by Josef Kupelwieser, Schubert's close friend) through a multi-layered staging that placed Schubert himself at the center.

In a beautiful Biedermeier parlor (designed by Christian Schmidt), Schubert is discovered at a huge fortepiano -- he is dwarfed by the music he is composing. Fierrabras becomes an amateur performance, in which Schubert distributes roles to his friends, depicted much as they are in Moritz von Schwind's famous drawing of a Schubertiade.

Thus the conflicts of the plot become Schubert's private conflicts. This approach permits smiling acceptance of the naïveté of the story, concerning romantic entanglements during Charlemagne's war on a Saracen, Boland. Boland's son, Fierrabras, loves Charlemagne's daughter, Emma, who tries to escape with Eginhard, one of Charlemagne's knights; meanwhile, Roland, Charlemagne's commander, loves Florinda, Boland's daughter. At last, Fierrabras yields, then joins Charlemagne's Christian army -- suggesting that a male community, based on comradeship, may be the alternative for people like Schubert, always a loser in love.

Klaus Guth's sophisticated production emphasized the Romantic yearning for friendship and love in the Age of Chivalry, contrasted with the stifling petit-bourgeois reality of post-Napoleonic Vienna. Though Guth strictly condensed the opera's spoken texts and drama, the music was given free rein by conductor Franz Welser-Möst, an ardent Schubertian, and his superb orchestra. Welser-Möst accompanied the soloists (mostly young singers) and busy chorus with the loving care, grace and subtlety of a lieder-pianist, without shying from the orchestral storms (in which Schubert clearly anticipates Wagner). This reading had weight, grandeur and dramatic impact, as well as heartwrenching lyrical outpourings.

As Fierrabras, Jonas Kaufmann delivered an entirely sympathetic performance, utilizing his charisma, his warm, sizable and flexible tenor, and intelligent, elegant delivery and bearing. As Schubert's father/Charlemagne, Gregory Frank (replacing the indisposed Lászlo Pólgár) displayed a voluminous bass voice and a commanding, truly imperial presence. Rolf Haunstein squeezed the role of Boland for every drop of bloodthirstiness and intransigence. Newcomer Christoph Strehl (Eginhard), with a tenor of melting beauty, was wonderfully tender in his A-minor serenade, while Michael Volle (Roland) proved himself once again the full-blast baritone pillar of Zurich's ensemble.

Both leading ladies were somewhat less impressive. However, Liuba Chuchrova's Florinda plucked the heartstrings while pouring out her innermost feelings; Joanna Kozlowska was a touching Emma.

Wolfgang Beuschel, a respected actor and singing coach, played Schubert. Though he spoke only rarely (texts drawn mostly from the libretto), he remained present throughout the performance. Shy, completely absorbed in his work, he was precisely as one imagines Schubert to have been.

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