25 Jun 2009
SCHUBERT: Alfonso und Estrella
What is the worst opera with the best music?
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What is the worst opera with the best music?
Some might vote for Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles, which has tunes so magnificent that they help to mitigate against a hopeless libretto, enticing companies to stage the opera from time to time. A somewhat more obscure candidate could be Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount - the suite from which sweetens the playlist of many a classical radio station. Naxos has released both the original Metropolitan Opera broadcast from the 1930s, in very poor sound, and a more recent concert recording, with Gerald Schwartz conducting. In both, the music engages while the drama distracts.
Now Naxos’s series of operas on DVD presents another possibility for that lamentable title: Franz Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella, composed to a libretto by Franz von Schober. The score can’t be said to boast any of Schubert’s immortal melodies, but it has some fine ones nonetheless. Arias, duets, trios, ensembles - the score may be a crazy quilt of “pieces,” but each in itself is tuneful and evocative. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not always the most stylish of conductors, but he has a flair for Schubert, especially the dramatic minor-key passages, as well as the more rhythmically exciting passages. He leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in an excellent performance.
The singers get caught in the middle, with such fine music to sing and such dopey drama to enact. Director Jürgen Flimm gives the drama every opportunity to succeed. On Erich Wonder’s dark, atmospheric set, the singers move about as if actually motivated by recognizable human emotions. But the story is simply too thin and predictable. An exiled king worries over his noble son, who is in love with a woman who just happens to be the daughter of the man that deposed her lover’s father. It all ends in a sanctimonious bout of forgiveness and redemption, vaguely recalling Beethoven’s Fidelio. A clumsy translation doesn’t help matters for the non-German speaker. One example will serve: “Monster! Ha, avaunt!” Avaunt to be alone.
Recorded in 1997 at the Vienna Festival, the singers are all in fine, fresh voice. Made up as an old man, Thomas Hampson lays on the “feebleness” a bit much, but his voice is strong. Olaf Bär sings the “bad” king without letting his nefariousness mar the musical line. As the young lovers, Luba Orgonasova and Endrik Wottrich are attractive both vocally and personally.
Once seen, viewers may not be interested in returning to Alfonso und Estrella as a music drama. However, such are the pleasures of its score that this DVD is well worth considering, if no other opportunity can be found for enjoying its music.