Tuesday 5 September 2017

Schubert in operatic mode: Daniel Behle and L'Orfeo Barockorchester

Daniel Behle - Schubert arias & overtures - Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
Schubert overtures and arias from Die Zauberharfe, Claudine von Villa Bella, Die Freunde von Salamanka, Adrast, Lazarus, Alfonso und Esterlla, Fierrabras and Das Zauberglockchen; Daniel Behle (tenor), L'Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 1 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A survey of arias and overtures from Schubert's operas, stylish performances shedding light on neglected works

Schubert's operas are still not that well known and, though failures, are a fascinating part of his output nonetheless. On this disc from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, the German tenor Daniel Behle joins L'Orfeo Barockorchester and conductor Michi Gaigg in a programme of overtures and arias from Schubert's dramatic works, Die Zauberharfe, Claudine von Villa Bella, Die Freunde von Salamanka, Adrast, Lazarus, Alfonso und Esterlla, Fierrabras and Das Zauberglockchen. Three of the tracks are world premiere recordings, and ten of them are premiere recordings on period instruments.

Early 19th century German opera arose out of the development of the singspiel during the 18th century. Notably the way that the singspiel was taken up by German dramatists meant that the philosophical basis for the genre which relied more on drama and less on virtuosity. Carl Maria von Weber's opera Die Freischutz is an important milestone, premiered in Berlin in 1821, but Weber's music was far less highly regarded in Dresden where he was employed at the court, there it was the Italians who had the upper hand. This was also true in Vienna, and the most popular composer there in the 1820s was Rossini. However, the Italian impresario in Vienna, Domenico Barbaia (who was also responsible for Rossini's Neapolitan career) also commissioned a follow up to Die Freischutz from Weber. Unfortunately, Weber had fallen out with Firedrich Kind, librettist of Die Freischutz (over the degree of credit each should get), and so the most important German Romantic opera before Wagner, Weber's Euryanthe was saddled with such a poor libretto that it failed. (However, it would be the groundwork done by Weber and Heinrich Marschner provided the fertile ground for Richard Wagner's operas a generation later).

Such is the background to Schubert's opera career. He had some success, but the lack of a fully developed German opera theatre meant that good librettos were hard to get and many of Schubert's opera fail because of the libretto. Having had some success in 1820 with Die Zillingsbruder and Die Zauberharfe, his follow up Alfonso und Estrella was refused because of the libretto. And then in 1823 Fierrabras, which has the promise to be a creditable start to an operatic career, was refused because 1823 was the year of Rossini's peak popularity in Vienna, added to which Weber's Euryanthe had just failed.

Schubert's operatic writing eschews the virtuoso elements in Rossini's music which made it so popular, instead Schubert concentrates on the words and and the drama. The result is that some of the items on the disc are quite short, no longer than necessary. Schubert might never have turned into a great opera composer, he seemed to have lacked the ability to turn poor librettos into striking dramatic works. By contrast, Weber manages to make something of Euryanthe even though horribly hobbled by the libretto.

On this disc we needn't worry about the dramatic details, and can appreciate highlights. Much of the music is unfamiliar, the only overture which really stands out is that to Die Zauberhafe which he re-used for the incidental music to Rosamunde (which, incidentally, had a text written by the same woman who had written the libretto to Weber's Euryanthe, not surprisingly the play Rosamunde failed as well).

Michi Gaigg and L'Orfeo Barockorchester give lively and lithe performances of the overtures, with Gaigg bringing out both the lyricism and the sturm und drang proto-Romanticism.The orchestra's sound is not luxurious and I could imagine a great of degree of sophistication in the sound sometimes. But Gaigg makes a virtue of this, giving great impulse and vividness to the playing.

Daniel Behle has a lovely lyric tenor voice and he sings Schubert's lyrical lines beautifully with great attention to the words. Sometimes I wondered whether things were too carefully shaped and that a bit of steel, drama and the odd hint of roughness might not go amiss. As it is, many of these arias are lovely objects without being overly arresting. The other aspect is that Behle's voice does not have much of a dramatic edge, and occasionally the music seems to push him too much. But he sings always with musicality, and overall you cannot but enjoy the beauty of tone for its own sake.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Die Zauberharfe (excerpts) (1820)
Franz Schubert - Claudine von Villa Bella (excerpts) (1815)
Franz Schubert - Die Freunde von Salamanka (excerpts) (1815)
Franz Schubert - Adrast (excerpts) (1819-1820)
Franz Schubert - Lazarus (excerpts) (1820)
Franz Schubert - Alfonso und Estrella (excerpts) (1821-22)
Franz Schubert - Fierrabras (excerpts) (1823)
Franz Schubert - Das Zauberglockchen (excerpts) (1821)
Daniel Behle (tenor)
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Michi Gaigg (conductor)
Recorded 14-17 June 2016, Schloss Zell an der Pram, Upper Austria
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985407212 1CD
Available from Amazon.

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