Opera News 6/2006
Schubert: Fierrabras, Paris, 12 March 2006
PARIS — Fierrabras, Théâtre du Chatelet, 3/12/06
The Châtelet season continued with a rare opportunity to see a staging of Schubert's Fierrabras, generally considered the composer's most widely known opera, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst in a staging from Zürich Opera. The generally accepted view that Schubert was not a great operatic composer will hardly be challenged by this production (seen March 12), but it did make an intelligent and coherent case for the singspiel. It was a clever idea of director Claus Guth to update the plot from the reign of Charlemagne to the time of the opera's composition. Schubert appeared onstage as a composer in action, handing out bits of score to the cast and controlling the evening with a Svengali-like presence, emphasized by the giant piano which dominated Christian Schmidt's set. The cardboard cutout characters were moved like marionettes through this drama of inter-religious relationships. This neatly disguised the fact that the dialogue is stilted; the dramatic structure of the work might generously be described as improvisational.

There is much beautiful music in the score, especially the choral moments, here well sung by the Swiss chorus, and some of the more pastoral solos capture the composer at his most lyrical. The least successful scenes are the bombastic moments of would-be drama, which somehow seem to have been alien to the composer. It is interesting that a composer who could create an operatic situation within the confines of a three-minute song should have had such difficulty in sustaining any dramatic tension in a three-and-a-half hour opera. Conductor Welser-Möst obviously believes in the work, and he drew expressive playing from the Zürich orchestra . The opera was cast from strength. Jonas Kaufmann, fresh from his triumphant debut at the Met in La Traviata, was as fine an exponent as one could hope for in the role of Fierrabras, whose selfless nobility is the positive message of the opera. His voice carried almost Wagnerian weight and intensity of declamation in a role that did not really exploit his vocal talents to the full. He was well supported by sopranos Juliane Banse, as Emma, and Twyla Robinson, as Florinda. Banse was the more powerful of the two but lacked grace above the staff, while Robinson brought an admirable sense of grace and urgency to her scenes. Firm-voiced and well-characterized contributions came from basses Gregory Frank and Günther Groissböck, baritone Michael Volle and sweet-voiced tenor Christoph Strehl.

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