Oberon is an example of the Märchenoper, evoking on one hand the orientalism of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and on the other the fairy-tale fantasy of Die Zauberflöte. The opera even includes a chorus in which a chorus of slaves involuntarily dances to the music of a magic horn, much like Monastatos and his minions involuntarily dance to the music of Papageno's bells.
The opera contains a great deal of magnificent music, and is perhaps best known for the imaginative and coloristic musical gestures through which Weber creates the image of a fantastic medieval/Oriental world. Although the opera was frequently performed in the early and mid nineteenth century, it eventually fell out of the repertoire, in part because of insoluble problems with the plot. Weber wrote the opera for London, and the libretto (in English, by Planché) is a nearly incomprehensible mishmash of elements derived from Wieland's late eighteenth-century epic poem Oberon. There have been many attempts to overcome the inadequacies of the libretto: most of these have involved the composition of new recitatives to replace the original dialogue, or the insertion of various pieces from some of Weber's other operas. This recording dispenses with all of the added recitatives (and the dialogues as well), so that the opera appears as a series of largely disconnected musical numbers. This is probably a net gain for the work as a whole, for it has the effect of focusing attention on Weber's imaginative and coloristic music.
Even though the original language of the opera was English, Weber's Oberon has had far more performances in German, and that is the language in which the performances recorded on this set are sung. The main part of the set is a live recording of a concert performance from 1978, in which Eve Queler conducted the Opera Orchestra of New York. The set also includes five "bonus tracks" from a 1972 recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik (with Renè Kollo in the lead tenor role)
The OONY recording has all the advantages and drawbacks that go along with live performance. It is a record of what was surely an extraordinary evening, and in certain numbers (such as the third-act Rondo for the tenor "Ich juble in Gluck und Hoffnung neu!") the recording has the energy and excitement that is too often absent from studio sessions. But there are also distracting coughs during the overture, and (more importantly) a certain veiled quality to much of the orchestral sound. While the brass instruments that shine forth brightly (a big advantage in an opera that features a magic horn), the strings often sound muddy and distant. The Dessoff Choir sounds as if they are singing in another room -- it is nearly impossible to make out their words. The recording engineer had difficulties getting the levels right, and there is occasional distortion in the louder sections. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of beautiful singing and playing here, and the recording should be of great interest not only to specialists, but to all opera lovers.
One of the principal attractions for record collectors will be the presence of Nicolai Gedda in the lead tenor role of Hüon -- the role, incidentally, with which he made his Paris Opera debut in 1954. His rendition of the great first-act aria "Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild" is stirring and spectacular, alternating between heroism and transfigured tenderness. But Gedda's singing is by no means faultless. Like the role of Max in Der Freischütz, Hüon is often treated as part of the Heldentenor Fach; indeed, both of these roles are highly dramatic and declamatory. But in contrast to Wagner, Weber writes a great deal of coloratura for his dramatic tenors, and here is where Gedda's approach leaves something to be desired. The voice often sounds as if it is under too much pressure, and the florid passages are consequently labored. In this recording, Gedda is at his best when he sings pianissimo, as in the second-act prayer "Vater! Hör mich fleh'n zu dir!"
Another interpretation of the lead tenor role appears in the bonus tracks at the end of this set, one of which is Kollo's 1972 recording of "Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild." Kollo's approach is distinctively German: the sound is highly compressed and strongly articulated from the throat, and this reviewer preferred Gedda's more Italianate vocal style.
The OONY recording also features the soprano Betty Jones in the role of Rezia. Jones's voice is clearly enormous, and her upper range is remarkably free and clear. She is at her best in the aria "Ozean, du Ungeheurer!" (probably the most famous part of the score). Her performance is unfortunately marred by occasionally pitch problems, and a tendency to let her vibrato get out of control. This reviewer preferred the taught and muscular soprano sound of Ursula Schröder-Feinen, whose 1972 performance the famous "Ocean aria" appears as one of the "bonus tracks" in this set.
This recording should be of interest to many different audiences: for opera enthusiasts interested in the recording of particular voices, for those who are curious about the development of German opera (or at least, opera by German composers!) between Mozart and Wagner, and for those who have followed Eve Queler's remarkable career. But it is this reviewer's hope that the set will also reach a broader audience. The opera deserves a more prominent place in the repertoire, and the release of this set will hopefully draw attention to a forgotten corner of operatic history.
Dr. Stephen Meyer