02 Dec 2013

Weber’s Euryanthe, London

Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.

And then, at least in the case of Euryanthe and Oberon, there is the matter of the dreadful libretti he had to set — presumably part of the reason why companies are unwilling to perform them. (Oddly, dreadful music seems to be less of a problem, given the lashings endured of Donizetti, Verdi, et al.) The best one can say for Helmina von Chezy’s efforts in Euryanthe is that they are merely awful, as opposed to the execrable text for Oberon.Lucky Weber, then, to receive such a fine performance as this from the valiant forces of the Chelsea Opera Group.

Conductor Cameron Burns and his excellent cast should receive equal credit for what I have no hesitation in describing as the best COG performance I have heard — by some distance. Burns’s reading ought to have been welcomed with open arms in any opera house; indeed, it would have signalled a marked improvement in most of what we hear. A refreshingly elegant, unexaggerated style — no frenetic waving around of arms to no evident end — did not in any sense preclude engagement with libretto, whatever its shortcomings, and score alike. It was surely testimony to sound training that soloists and chorus not only enunciated clearly, but for the most part seemed really to mean their words — even when the chorus was compelled to comment, without a trace of irony, that Euryanthe’s alleged betrayal of Adolar was the most grievous deed the world had ever witnessed: ‘ O Unthat, grässlichste von allen, Die jemals auf der Welt erhört!’ Burns’s handling of Weber’s score was perhaps all the more revelatory, not least since it is about the music that, perforce, we truly care. Line was maintained throughout. Not a single passage sounded unduly hurried or remotely meandering.

The Overture was an interesting case in point. It offered quite a contrast with, say, Karajan’s account, firmly melded into an almost granitic Wagnerian whole as it is — and mightily, even wondrously, impressive. Here, however, we heard a greater variety of moods, textures, and tempi, arguably more faithful to the movement’s role as apotpourri introduction to Weber’s opera (as opposed to Karajan’s concert overture) and to the composer’s conception, without danger of lapsing into the merely sectional. Presentiments — one has to remind oneself that they are not echoes! — of Mendelssohn characterised the very opening, but a darker form of the supernatural made its voice eerily heard in the ghost music. Weber’s musico-dramatic experiments were communicated with apparent ease, boundaries blurred but not obliterated between more old-fashioned set pieces and the ‘forward-looking’ — at least to any self-respecting Wagnerian — treatment of recitative and arioso. Above all, dramatic tension remained tight and proportions simply sounded ‘right’, a far more difficult task to accomplish than many might appreciate.

The chorus sometimes lacked a little in youthful vitality, especially earlier on, yet became more animated as the opera progressed, later sounding impressive indeed in the great close to the second act. Not unfittingly, it was at that point that the orchestra perhaps gained its greatest dramatic heights too, though throughout there was a great deal of impressive solo playing, especially from the woodwind. If only Weber’s clarinet writing were as meaningful in his concertos as it is here; he clearly needed a dramatic impetus to reach the heights of which he was capable. Moreover, the strings, if at times a little reticent earlier on, subsequently showed themselves adept at providing just the right sort of musical cushion for vocal recitatives. I could not help but wish that we had heard Burns at the helm for the COG Die Feen earlier this year, not least since the amount the two works have in common — not solely influence, though there is a good deal of that — became increasingly clear, as indeed did the influences, perceptible yet again not exaggerated, upon Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. (If only, I thought, Weber had had a dramatist such as Wagner to shape the relationship between Lysiart and Eglantine, we might have had a more telling taste still of Ortrud and Telramund. Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, appallingly misunderstood by many critics at Covent Garden last year, also came to mind more than once.)

Kirstin Sharpin’s star shone brightly in the tight role, words and music honoured to equal extent and indeed in fine alchemy. Hers was a portrayal both impassioned and noble, clearly longing to be properly ‘on stage’, yet offering considerable dramatic compensation even in concert. Sharpin’s cleanness of vocal line and dramatic commitment were shared by Camilla Roberts’s Eglantine. Tricky coloratura apparently evoked no fears; more importantly, such ambiguity as the libretto permitted was exploited to its dramatic fullest. Stephen Gadd likewise offered a finely honed portrayal of her accomplice, Lysiart, malevolent and sophisticated — again, insofar as the libretto permitted, but considerably more so than one would have likely have expected. Jonathan Stoughton revealed an often pleasing tenor as Adolar, drawing upon lyric and heroic reserves as required. This is clearly a voice which, if sensibly marshalled, will be in great demand for heroic roles; however, more careful phrasing was sometimes called for on this occasion. Richard Wiegold projected a benevolent voice of experience as the king, and Melinda Hughes’s brief appearance as the country girl, Bertha proved full of charm. All contributed to a performance that was very much more than the sum of its parts. Now will one of our opera companies — ideally, the Royal Opera — kindly take its cue and do its duty by Weber?

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

King Louis VI: Richard Wiegold; Adolar: Jonathan Stoughton; Euryanthe: Kirstin Sharpin; Lysiart: Stephen Gadd; Eglantine: Camilla Roberts; Bertha: Melinda Hughes; Chorus of the Chelsea Opera Group (chorus master: Deborah Miles-Johnson)/Orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group/Cameron Burns (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, Saturday 23 November 2013.

Click here for more information on Euryanthe.