Thursday 21 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (6) - Fierrabras, 16 August 2014

Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus
Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann) and the chorus

Haus für Mozart 

Fierrabras – Michael Schade
Emma – Julia Kleiter
Eginhard – Benjamin Bernheim
Florinda – Dorothea Röschmann
Roland – Markus Werba
Charlemagne – Georg Zeppenfeld
Boland – Peter Kálmán
Maragond – Marie-Claude Chappuis
Brutamonte – Manuel Walser
Ogier – Franz Gruber
Two Young Ladies – Secil Ilker, Wilma Maller
Moorish Captain – Helmut Höllriegl
Knight – Michael Wilder

Peter Stein (director)
Ferdinand Wögerbauer (set designs)
Annamaria Heinreich (costumes)
Joachim Barth (lighting)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

We owe the Salzburg Festival – and Alexander Pereira – a considerable debt for staging Fierrabras. Dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, whose celebrated Vienna production with Ruth Berghaus, marked a milestone in the fortunes of Schubert’s opera, this new production will surely have opened new ears to the work’s considerable virtues, as well as to its undeniable shortcomings, upon which it is not unreasonable to look with a little indulgence. Schubert, after all, never had the chance to hear Fierrabras performed, despite a commission from the Kärtnertortheater, and despite its staging having been advertised. (The ‘failure’ of Weber’s Euryanthe seems to have been a factor in dissuading the theatre’s director, Domenico Barbaia, from staging another new German Romantic opera, likewise the perennial Viennese problem of Italian singers having supplanted Germans. Look at the Vienna State Opera today, and wonder at the proportion of nineteenth-century Italian opera on the menu!) Indeed, although excerpts were heard in concert in Vienna in 1835 and 1858, the opera would not be staged until 1897, in Karlsruhe – and then in a version in which both words and music were ‘revised’, the latter by Felix Mottl.


This production was originally to have been conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His replacement by Ingo Metzmacher will doubtless have been a matter of sadness for some, though certainly not for me. I can happily do without speed bumps, arbitrary caesuras, and the like. In Metzmacher, Schubert certainly found a committed advocate, both in words – in a fascinating programme note – and in the pit. If there were moments when I felt the lack of something grandeur, perhaps recalling at least subconsciously the wondrous symphonic Schubert of the morning before, from the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti, then not only would it be curmudgeonly to cavil; one could also make an argument that something a little more modest was truer to this particular work, whatever its ‘heroic’ trappings. (Not that I necessarily should subscribe to such a claim, but it is not inherently implausible.) At any rate, once past a slightly plodding account of the overture, which sounded more exciting in Metzmacher’s prose description, the conductor’s ear for harmony and its dramatic implications proved invaluable. He seemed most inspired by the passages which, I later read, he considered most inspired of all: for instance, the music for the Moorish princess, Florinda, perhaps above all in the melodrama at the end of the second act, ‘a passage that climaxes in the unfathomable,’ though, one might add, not unusual for Schubert, ‘key of E-flat minor’. For Metzmacher, although ‘much ink has been spilt over the question whether Schubert was ever really able to write an opera,’ this melodrama would leave no one entertaining ‘any doubts on the matter’. It was certainly fortunate in the playing of the VPO, old hands in Schubert, if not necessarily in his operas.

So long, then, as one does not expect the Schubert of his greatest songs, or indeed of the chamber and piano music, one has no real need to be musically disappointed. One of the oddities of much of the music is how, whilst one can believe the composer to be Schubert, it does not sound so very much like much of the rest of his œuvre. Likewise, so long as one does not expect Mozartian characterisation, the drama can be dealt with – at least on that level. Its Orientalism is undoubtedly problematical for a modern audience, but that may prove a spur to interesting stage direction. (I shall leave that matter just for the moment.) We should, moreover, consider this an interesting early work, had Schubert lived longer. Of course, we have what we have, and there is no point in performing something on the basis that we are sure the composer would eventually have written something better, but it is perhaps a particular reason for charitable reception in this case. The work as it stands is in any case a manifestly better work than many from the same period, and indeed from later, which continue to hold the stage. Less than top-drawer Schubert remains infinitely preferable to any Donizetti or Verdi.

Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann), Eginhard (Benjamin
Bernheim), Roland (Markus Werba), chorus 
Fierrabras was also fortunate in the cast assembled, albeit with one unfortunate exception. In many operas, such a failure in the title role might have been catastrophic; here, however, the cast is large, and the opera is not so closely focused upon the good and faithful Moorish prince accepted into the ranks of his erstwhile Frankish foes. Salzburg’s enthusiasm for Michael Schade remains a mystery, though. True to form, and even given the most charitable listening, his singing proved a trial: unpleasant of tone and often hectoring. (To think, Zurich had Jonas Kaufmann!) No such complaints, however, concerning the rest of the cast. Georg Zeppenfeld proved a stentorian Karl/Charlemagne, ably surrounded by a throng of excellent knights: Benjamin Bernheim’s touchingly lovelorn Eginhard, Markus Werba’s virile yet thoughtful Roland, and Franz Gruber’s attentively sung Ogier. Peter Kálmán offered a suitably dark-voiced Moorish king, Boland; the problems with the role are not his fault. Perhaps even more impressive were the women, Julia Kleiter’s lyrical Emma presenting winning contrast with Dorothea Röschmann’s brilliantly hochdramatisch Florinda. Choral singing was excellent too.

Fierrabras (Michael Schade), Eginhard, and Emma (Julia Kleiter)

Other than Schade, the principal problem lies with Peter Stein’s production. Whatever has happened to him? I have heard tales, all of them rueful, of his recent stagings, but admit to wondering whether they might have been exaggerated, or at least to whether there might be more to salvage. Alas not. The stage business often resembles a well-budgeted school play. There are cod-mediæval costumes and flimsy backdrops, which most would have thought so ludicrous that they must be intended to be sent up, or deconstructed. And that is about it. Of deconstruction there is not a sign. There is certainly no attempt to address the ‘Orientalist’ problem. Does Stein really think it does not matter? One shudders to think how he might approach The Merchant of Venice. It may be an all-too-obvious route, but a setting in the contemporary Middle East would surely have offered more opportunity for reflection than this. Watching Stein’s staging seems less a matter of viewing through a time warp, than of capitulation to those who think that productions of the past were simply a matter of ‘pretty’ stage design and costumes. There is no denying the drawback of the staging, but at least one was free to imagine what might have been, or what might yet be. The music was the thing, and it was well served.