13 Aug 2006
SCHUBERT: Der Graf von Gleichen
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Most of us who listen to opera often chose a work to relax us on a quiet evening; perhaps lighting some candles, and opening that bottle of good vino you’ve been saving for a special occasion.
What better occasion is there? We value this as our “relaxation” entertainment of choice even when the stories of the operas; imbued with chaos, unrequited desire, and murder, are events that would frustrate any normal person. Meant to whisk us away from the realities of our own lives and transport us to a world that we wish to be more interesting than our own, these stories are the perfect entertainment for any quiet evening at home. So, how about this: an opera that includes, love, adultery, the exoticism of turkey, and…la pièce de la résistance the guy who, in the end, gets not one, but TWO girls!!! How’s that for a tabloid driven plot line? Eat your heart out Brangelina, Bennifer, and Tom-Cat?!!!
Der Graf von Gleichen, Schubert’s last attempt at writing a “great” opera, was left incomplete due to his death. Hey, did Schubert compose operas? He did. In fact, he wrote 16 operas but they remain the least known of his works. It is an intriguing prospect to find out why this is so. How is it that a composer with such a magnificent symphonic understanding and a most blessed ability to write for the human voice would be unable to combine these two elements into one grand genre of opera. This being said, it is not to say that Der Graf von Gleichen fails entirely; there are indeed moments of beauty and that Schubertian delicateness that is always recognizable. Nevertheless, as a whole, the opera is not what you might expect from this renowned master.
At the beginning of 1824, and depressed with the failure of his theatre works weighing on his mind, Schubert abandoned the writing of operas and devoted his last years to songs and instrumental music, but it was the “opera” that haunted him throughout his short life. Why might this be? A probable hypothesis is this: All composers after Beethoven tried to adhere to his level of musical accomplishment. Beethoven struggled inherently with his opera Fidelio. A struggle made evident in the gestation period he took to compose it, and the attention he paid to its dramatic structure and realization. Was Schubert haunted by Beethoven’s grandiose operatic contribution, as Brahms and Mahler were haunted by his symphonies? More than likely, but why did Schubert’s operas fail? Why couldn’t he fuse together the elements he so clearly had control over, in their separate genres, into one. To answer this, we need to play a game of “sleuth” and collect significant evidence that might leads us to a coherent conclusion. In any opera study, one must look first at the value and validity of the libretto.
Eduard von Bauernfeld was one of Schubert’s closest friends during his last years. Unlike other occasional librettists amongst Schubert’s friends, Bauernfeld was a professional writer. As early as 1825, it seems that the plan for a Bauernfeld-Schubert collaboration was born. A medieval epic was to be the course of action, although Bauernfeld was not entirely happy about this idea. Therefore, he proposed the subject of the Count of Gleichen, a “true” legend that had appeared among the tales published by the brothers Grimm. In his letters, Bauernfeld mentions that he had adopted Mozart’s point of view and tried to write a play where the “poetry should be the music’s obedient daughter.” Schubert began to compose the music in 1826 and was so excited that he did not even wait for the approval of the censors. Of course, the opera was viewed negatively, surely because of its finale and subject matter.
Enrst, the Count of Gleichen, has been imprisoned during the Crusades and is now the slave of the Sultan of Cairo. The Sultan’s daughter, Suleika, loves Ernst and convinces her father to let him and the other Christian slaves go. Suleika returns with Ernst to his country and converts to Christianity, but not before he tells her that he has a wife and son back home. This is already outrageous, but the kicker is this: on the way to home to Turkey, they stop in Rome and get special permission from the Pope, and along with the Countess agreement, the Count of Gleichen can marry Suleika and live happily ever after with his “two” wives. That the Viennese censors did not allow such a story to be presented in Austrian theatres isn’t any big surprise, but what was Schubert thinking? Moreover, what was Bauernfeld thinking? Obviously, both were naïve if they thought a such a story would be accepted, by the censors or the public for that matter. Ironically, even Bauernfeld spoke of his libretto as a “Turkish-Christian mess.” It has several weaknesses which are not balanced by an operatic effectiveness.
So, is this a comic opera or to be taken seriously? If it is supposed to be a comic one, and it seems that the traditional structure of two acts and the extant conventions of opera buffa would suggest so. Why do the main characters have serious parts and belong to the upper class? Humour in opera means you have fun about somebody or something, and Schubert’s compassion, his perception of other people’s feelings, made that quite impossible for him. A sympathetic irony is the closest thing to humour we can find in Schubert’s work and that was surely not what Bauernfeld had in mind. In the aesthetic of the early 19th century, a comic opera should conclude with the traditional happy conclusion and so, it is quite difficult to avoid this “marriage à trios” becoming ridiculous. However, did Schubert really want the opera to end like this; remember it was unfinished? So who finished it?
Richard Dünser, an Austrian composer born in Bregenz in 1959 (yes 1959…he’s still alive) has taught composition at some of Vienna’s most renowned music schools, and has a particular penchant for orchestral arrangments. In 1995, he decided to complete and reconstruct Der Graf von Gleichen, and completed it in 1997. Therefore, whether or not this is what Schubert would have written is unknown.
This live recording by OEHMS is Dünser’s realization of Der Graf von Gleichen, with Act I beginning in the Sultan’s palace in Cairo. Interestingly, Schubert opens the opera with a choral number. The Chor der indischer Sklaven: a slave chorus is accompanied by light and sprightly woodwinds (woodwinds are prominent throughout the opera to suggest the “exotic” flavour of India). The male chorus sounds a little strained in the tenor section, but this is surely because of Schubert’s use of a high-tessitura, another influence from Beethoven, who wrote incredibly difficult ranges for choruses, even in his masses. The opening chorus does contain a beautiful string accompaniment and woodwind introduction to the Frauen und Sklaven where the chorus promotes excellent German diction, perhaps even obscuring the guttural quality of the language. Chorus master, Wolfgang Schwendinger, is to be commended for his work with the chorus, especially since choral predominance is immediately established at the opera’s opening. The only negativity here is that the orchestral texture is rather thick in the middle range instruments and somewhat distorts the clarity of the voices.
After the introduction, a spoken dialogue occurs before every operatic number. Although this is an excellent use of narration by Schubert, the speaker actually interrupts the flow and naturalness of the opera. It stops the action rather than enhance it, and in this recording we are not even given the speaker’s dialogue in the CD booklet. Therefore, unless you understand German, you will not understand the narration, an unfortunate exclusion by OEHMS Classics. The following number is the Recitativ und Cavatine of the Graf that begins with a lovely vocal entrance by Florian Boesch, with full-bodied and well-produced lines. The text is beautifully effected, but Boesch sings it almost too lyrically for a recitative. The speech-like quality is not there, and even though this recitative might not be the strongest composed moment in Schubert’s opera, the singer is still responsible to maintain the speech-like declamation of recitative. The woodwind responses to the Graf’s singing are appropriate and the orchestral accompaniment is reflective of the melodic commentary. Perhaps, though, Schubert might not have used so many unisons between certain instruments and the voice, but imbued the orchestra with it’s own purpose.
The Graf’s aria fails immediately because there is almost no division between the recitative and cavatina. The cavatina should have a completely different flavour than the recit, but Boesh fails to effect this. The singing here is rather rough and perhaps not delicate enough or lyrical enough for Schubert. The ends of Boesche’s phrases are not rounded and completed with a sense of shape, but sung robustly…almost to the point that he seems to yell.
Nr. 5 Arie, is sung by Suleika and followed by a recitative und duet by the Graf and Suleika. Cornelia Horak begins this with a lovely tone, and complimented by Schubert’s orchestral commentary, this piece works well. There is a continual repeated bass that almost reflects the heart-beat that is obviously representative of high passion. Horak has exquisite upper notes on “Sönne so feurig und wild,” however she immediately moves into a type of straight-tone on the descent which is not attractive. The Graf’s entrance is more intimate here than in his previous cavatina and Boesch’s voice is more pleasing when sung delicately. There is good conversation between the two characters, but the duet tempts Boesch back into his non-lyrical singing. Horak’s singing here is lovely and it becomes bothersome that the two main voices are not in sync, as they should be. The orchestra is delicate if not a little too subdued and could offer more support to the voices.
In the next scene, Schubert cleverly inserts a March (à la Beethoven), that is Turkish in flavour. The march is to introduce the character of the Sultan, however this is an immediate transition from the duet between the Graf and Gräfin, so it completely obscures the intimacy of the previous scene with it’s pompous flavour and rhythmic intensity. One might also think, here, of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) and it’s Turkish elements. It is Suleika’s birthday and three Indian princes have come to congratulate her, but she has already chosen a husband, the Graf. As the Sultan arrives, the orchestra evokes his regal position and Schubert imbues this music with dotted rhythms and lots of brass. The Sultan is also sung by Boesch, and he begins with a nice tone in his recitative, but again there is a lack of legato singing in the aria, almost making it too choppy. Interestingly, Schubert’s arias don’t change mood as do the arias of Mozart or Haydn, and there is no Da Capo in sight.
To follow, the Graf gives Suleika a red rose, which is a sign of love in the Orient, and her passion explodes in an aria that almost seems like a “revenge-aria.” One would expect a lyrical and heart-wrenching piece, like Countess Almaviva’s “Dove Sono,” but instead Suleika seems almost infuriated in love. Horak approaches the difficulty of this aria, “Ja, ich leib ihn” in which she admits her love for the Graf. There is a particularly lovely moment where the agitation changes to a lyrical and passionate evocation of the word “Liebesblume.” She displays her incredible range in this aria, soaring into the upper tessitura and although Horak handles it well, there are still moments of pushing, and straight tone that make her sound as if her voice is getting tired. This is especially so at the end of the aria on “Groß ist der Liebe Macht” that ends in an extraordinarily high tessitura, perhaps too high for this type of aria.
To make things even more interesting, the Graf immediately tells Suleika that he has a wife and son back home. She also addresses the Graf as “my friend,” which seems like a mistake on the part of the librettist. Why would Suleika address the Count as her friend after she’s just poured her heart out in the previous aria? The effect of the aria is somewhat lost because of this. In the Finale of Act I, the Graf and Suleika sing a duet that is performed rather stagnantly. There is more vocal confrontation between Horak and Boesch here, rather than a merging of the two voices into one…which would be more representative of two people in love. This duet makes clear that the two voices are not well suited to each other.
The finale is quite long and goes through many changes. One, in particular, occurs at “Sich die Purpurblume, die du mir gabst!” where Suleika begins to mention that she will become Christian and leave for Europe with the Graf. The orchestra is rather stagnant here and rather than contributing to the emotion of the scene, Schubert uses it merely as accompaniment; perhaps this is another reason why Schubert’s operas weren’t as successful as his other works. At “Du weißt daß in Frankenkleidern bisweilen” Suleika pleas with her father, the Sultan, to release the Christian slaves. Schubert uses some orchestral drama to enhance this scene, with regal dotted motives in the brass as Suleika pleas, “Mein Vater!” The most beautiful moment occurs at “Leb Wohl auf hurz, dann ewig dir gepaart." She too is leaving. If Schubert wrote every moment in the opera with such beauty as this, his operas would have been very successful. Unfortunately, he only gives us small tastes of what his operatic writing might have developed into had he lived longer. The chorus then sings praises of joy, and there is a good balance between the choral voices and orchestra. “Oh Freiheit!” is sung with high intensity, and almost evokes hints of the Chorus of Prisoners in Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Act II begins in the Occident, on an autumn evening. The chorus also begins this act, again showing Schubert’s penchant for choral importance. There is lovely homophonic harmony here, and the orchestra lightly accompanies with pizzicati that help establish the mood. There is some polyphony used at the end of the chorus but the piece perhaps lacks the climax that we might expect from a chorus at this point in the opera.
Nr. 13 is an aria sung by the Gräfin, used to introduce us to her character. Countess Ottilie despairs about her husband’s absence. Letizia Scherrer sings her “Trocknet nicht” with a lovely warm sound and evokes much empathy from the listener. What makes this aria work well is that Schubert uses the orchestra in a more active approach, by making it reflect the mood and tone of the Countess’ emotions. It is truly a lovely moment, and connects the Gräfin to other forlorn women of high prestige, à la Octavia, or Countess Almaviva. The string finale to the aria is very heart wrenching and another one of those moments in which we see visions of an operatic Schubert that might have been.
The chorus enters again to snare-drum accompaniment, and the now free slaves sing a vibrant “Vaterland.” The pilgrims return led by the Graf who sees his wife and child for the first time. His recitative and aria “Burg meiner Väter” obscures his personality entirely…or at least more than it had been previously. He sings of how much he loves his wife and son, which is highly unbelievable, especially when he has arrived with his mistress, Suleika. A clear flaw in the libretto, any audience member in Schubert’s day, and surely a present-day one, would have a difficult time relating to the bigamous nature of the count.
In his return, the Gräfin recognizes him, and she is overwhelmed with happiness. The following recognition aria is confusing. For a scene of reuniting, the orchestra should invoke excitement and the furvor of the moment, but instead there is unresponsiveness, perhaps because the Graf is in love with two women. It is really very confusing as he sings “Unendlich, Unendlich is diese Lust!” (Unending, Unending is this love!) The duet that ensues between the Graf and Gräfin is rather un-exciting and again yearns for a moment of excitement.
The next scene is Suleika, who has now realized that if she is to live here with the count that she must be accepted by the countess. She asks God to help her accept this fate in, “Guter Gott, nimm aus dem Herzen dieses Sehnen.” Although this is a very beautiful aria, Horak’s voice seems more over-taxed than ever. The clarity with which she began the opera is missing and the beautiful legato that would display this aria’s rightful beauty, does not exist. As she finishes her prayer, the Gräfin enters and we have a duet between Suleika and the countess. The seriousness of the meeting is well presented in the orchestra by ominous diminished 7th chords. Schubert doesn’t use this sonority much throughout the opera, so their position here is well noted. There is a beautiful contrasting recitative where at the end, the Gräfin asks, “O liebst du ihn?” (Do you love him?) A poignant question leading to the duet, we expect that with Suleika’s answer the duet would merge the two women’s voices in a glorious display of either acceptance or not. We might think here of the great duet of Norma and Adalgisa, but here Suleika and the Gräfin rarely sing together in harmony. It is more of a question/response style that might occur in a recitative, not a full-blown duet. Regardless, the Countess accepts Suleika.
Finally, there is the anticipated trio. By this point we are asking, “what woman would really go for this? Most women can’t relate, and this is a probable reason why this opera has not retained any popularity or a solid position within the operatic canon. The trio between the Graf, Gräfin, and Suleika begins with a lovely string accompaniment that is evocative of Mozart’s Soave sia il vento from Così fan Tutte. Here he “does” have the women singing in thirds (and gloriously I might add) to the muttering of the Graf under the texture. Even though Boesch doesn’t really add to this trio, vocally, it is still possibly the most well-constructed number in the opera. The orchestra is responsive to the emotions of the characters, and there is an enhanced sense of drama that we haven’t yet experienced.
Why Schubert has the Graf sing for most of the Act II finale is beyond me. Boesch sings some lovely lines but all in all, there is no climactic ending here. His long speech is followed by, none other than, “the chorus”. It rejoices in knowing that the Pope has granted the count his wish to be married to two women, and that the countess has accepted Suleika. One of the main problems for any realization of the final scene is that it was not sketched by Schubert.
It seems to me that Schubert could have used this final attempt at opera to evolve, but he didn’t. The conventional description of Turkish cruelty is absent, as are warlike tunes, and instead we have an “impossible love story”. Compared to other Turkish operas, the opportunity of composing marches and other characteristic music is not there. Such a vision leaves little room for comical elements and thus Schubert cannot overcome the discrepancies of the libretto. It seems that the rightful category for the Der Graf von Gleichen is in the semi-seria category. In addition, Schubert’s characters are not well defined musically. They tend to remain the means of describing a story rather than representing distinctive personalities that develop through the course of action. Clearly, Schubert had not yet acquired a sufficient sense of dramatic timing. He might have with more experience and come to understand the need to build up tension and release it so to retain interest and produce more surprise elements.
Schubert, however, continues to remain a mystery to us. What might have become of him if he had lived? Might he have become the next Beethoven, surely a goal that he tried to achieve in life, at least in his compositions. Regardless of this, Schubert’s lieder and symphonies remain a staple of German art and culture. He will continue to be highly respected for his contribution to German musical development, and his operas shouldn’t be excluded from this statement. Even though his operas are not masterpieces like many of his other works, we cannot exclude them because they are another page, another aspect to the personality that we continue to investigate. Any Schubert fan should undoubtedly listen to this opera, or any, if only to hear the moments that suggest a sensitive, passionate, and intelligent operatic composer in the making.
Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B