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Franz Schubert: Fierrabras
11 Nov 2009

Schubert: Fierrabras

The worlds of lieder and opera seem to share the same galaxy, while being countless light years apart.

Franz Schubert: Fierrabras

Franz Welser-Möst, Zurich Opera House Orchestra, Chor des Opernhauses Zürich

EMI Classics 5099950096992 [DVD]

$22.49  Click to buy

There is no greater name in lieder composition than that of Franz Schubert, and he desperately wanted to make a name for himself as a composer of opera as well. However, his operatic efforts met only with indifference or outright failure in his lifetime - as so much of his great body of work did. After his death, much of his chamber, symphonic, and lieder works achieved masterpiece status, whereas his theatrical works remain obscure.

In late 2005 the Zurich Opera House chose Claus Guth to stage Schubert’s setting of a libretto by Josef Kupelwieser, Fierrabras. Not only did Schubert never see this opera staged, but Richard Lawrence attests, in his abbreviated but informative booklet note, that the work remained unstaged until 1988. Lawrence attempts a brief synopsis of the plot, but neither the discs themselves nor the booklet have any kind of detailed synopsis, and truthfully, watching this very long opera, particularly in Guth’s abstract, uni-set staging, does little to communicate the narrative. Suffice it to say, we are in, as Lawrence writes, “a medieval never-never land,” and heroes suffer, their lovers suffer, the chorus suffers, until a joyful conclusion does what it can to erase the memory of all that suffering.

A libretto as hopeless as this gives a creative director a lot of room for innovative staging. Guth builds his production around a Schubert lookalike, both observing and sometimes interacting with the principals, with the drama played out in a parlor setting. Presumably that is Schubert’s piano for composition dangling from the ceiling. Dress is contemporaneous with Schubert’s era. Guth and set/costume designer Christian Schmidt manage to keep the stage picture varied and active, but in foregoing any sense of naturalistic action, the relationships and plot points get lost. The result is an elaborate concert presentation. At 171 minutes spread over two discs, it’s a long show, and some viewers may feel impatience with the static narrative and Guth’s stylization. The attenuated curtain calls suggest as much even for the live audience. As with his score to Alfonso und Estrella, Schubert’s melodic gift doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest pieces in Fierrabras, but the music is consistently appealing and often quite imaginative. Franz Welser-Möst emphasizes the drama of the score, perhaps trying to supply more excitement than the libretto manages to deliver. A little more variety of texture could be desired, but the Zurich Opera House forces play the score with expert authority.

Fans of rising tenor Jonas Kaufmann should not get too excited to see his name in the title role, as the character of Fierrabras disappears for much of the action, especially in the latter half of the opera. Nonetheless, his handsome presence and warm delivery give evidence of his appeal. Twyla Robinson and Juliane Banse both have to bewail their fates at extended length, with Robinson managing to do so with a more interesting voice of considerable size. Michael Volle as the Roland of legend and Christoph Strehl partner their ladies well. Lászlo Polgár strides the stage as the King, sometimes clambering onto an oversize chair as his throne. His voice provides sufficient regal command.

EMI Classics bare-bones packaging omits any track listing or information beyond the Lawrence essay and the usual “back cover” credits. Anyone who has gone begging for a DVD of Fierrabras, however, can’t be a chooser. This well-sung set, with take-it-or-leave-it direction, will have to do.

Chris Mullins

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