Thursday, 8 March 2007

Review of Euryanthe (Dresden Staatsoper)

Weber’s Euryanthe was premiered in Dresden whilst he was working there as Musical Director of the German theatre there. The work is important in the history of the development of German Romantic opera, being a significant precursor of Wagner’s Lohengrin. But the libretto, by Helmina von Chezy, has some significant weaknesses which rather prevent the opera being regularly performed. Von Chezy was the author of the nonsensical play Rosamunde for which Schubert wrote his famous incidental music. Weber seems to have been aware of the libretto (and the librettist’s) shortcomings but let her write it because he felt sorry for her.

The current production at Dresden opera house was new in February 2006 and we saw it on 25th February 2007, this performance was the 7th of this new production. The director was Vera Nemirova, a disciple of Peter Konwitchny, and the designer was Gottfried Pilz.

The setting was abstract modern, in a single flexible set; costumes were contemporary This set consisted of an inner and an outer wall, but various sections of this could be raised and lowered at will so the a variety of settings were created. The most notable was when the two villains, Lysiart and Eglantine were coupling and the entire surrounding set rose as if they were descending into Hell. The colour scheme was black, beige and white with just touches of red for Lysiart and Eglantine.

During the overture we saw the women excitedly preparing for the return of their menfolk from the war. When the menfolk appeared they were less than heroic, being mainly dejected and walking wounded. In a later scene, the King and Lysiart hand out both medals and crutches.

Nemirova seems to have taken a pretty straightforward line with the story, but she has an awkward habit of ignoring things that don’t fit. So that the opening choruses became a simple concert welcoming the men back, the drama only starting later.

Johann Tilli made an impressive King and his height added to his imposing voice. During the first scene Lysiart (Andreas Schmidt) and Adolar (Richard Cox) must raise passions in their argument on fidelity which leads to the fatal wager. Schmidt and Cox did not really do this. Both sang nicely but did not convince that this really, really mattered. Cox was announced as ill and his upper register did suffer somewhat. I generally got the impression that he was husbanding his resources as he improved remarkably in the final dramatic scenes of the opera. Schmidt has a lovely voice and knows what to do with it, his performance was beautifully shaped but never seemed quite intense enough.

Gabriele Fontana made a striking heroine, Euryanthe. She has quite a strong voice and there was a hint of lack of control in her upper register but generally impressed with her way with Weber’s sometimes elaborate vocal lines. Euryanthe is one of those rather drippy heroines of whom Weber seemed to be fond, Agathe is similar. In the opening scenes Fontana made what she could of the heroine’s rather passive role.

As her companion Eglantine Evelyn Herliztius impressed in many ways. She has quite a big voice and sings big dramatic roles but she was able to move her instrument round Weber’s vocal lines in a way which was both impressive but also expressive. Herliztius made the most of Eglantine’s moves between her gentle coaxing of Euryanthe and her displays of her real, evil. Eglantine is a gift of a role and Herliztius made the most of it. She dominated the scenes that she was in without ever making too much of a meal of things.

Where the main inequality lay was in her relationship with Lysiart. Schmidt seemed just a little bit too passive and this made him the weaker one rather than a partnership of equals.

The essentially passive nature of Euryanthe, which Fontana and Nemirova established rather well, was essential for the closing scenes of Act 2 when Euryanthe is falsely accused of infidelity and betraying Adolar’s trust. In a rational world she would have been able to stand up for herself (Eglantine would never have found herself in this situation). So it was important that we believe that she could not, which we did. Just!

In Act 3 things get even worse. Adolar fails to believe in Euryanthe’s innocence and abandons here. Here Cox began to come into his own and these scenes were moving. Nemirova set the opening of this act on a pretty bare stage, resorting to no tricks. When Adolar abandons Euryanthe, she goes mad and enters an insane asylum. (This is Nemirova’s gloss on the plot and is not in von Chezy’s original).

The King visits the insane asylum and discovers Euryanthe, the chorus of Foresters having become the chorus of asylum inmates. The scene ends with Euryanthe beside herself with joy and pretty nigh insane. She dies, mad but happy.

A circus provides the entertainment for Lysiart and Eglantine’s wedding. There were 4 genuine circus performers, who were pretty impressive. Bertha here becomes the ring mistress, Christine Hossfeld sang her aria beautifully.

Herlitzius managed Eglantine’s breakdown beautifully (if that's the right word) and these scenes, where Adolar and Lysiart fight were very impressive dramatically. As I have said, Cox very much came into his own. The scene climaxes with the King announcing that Eglantine is dead.

The curtain then comes down and Adolar has a moving solo scene. Then the wedding celebrations are for Rudolph (Tom Martinsen) and Bertha with Schmidt and Fontana singing their parts from the side of the stage, dressed in evening dress. Again, Nemirova had ignored part of the plot which did not agree with her.

But the overall production did seem to work, mainly because Nemirova seems to have tried to take the plight of the protagonists seriously and to genuinely thing about the role of the 2 women in the opera.

The 2 strongest singers were Fontana and Herlitzius with Herlitzius taking the crown. Hans-E. Zimmer, the Musical Director the Dresden Opera, conducted. Some of the lack of dramatic intensity in the opening scenes could be down to his rather easygoing direction. The orchestra played beautifully and were a joy to listen to.

The production was perhaps not quite as impressive as Glyndebourne’s production, directed by Richard Jones, but Dresden have certainly done their former musical director proud.
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