Monday 27 July 2020

Towards German romantic opera: Carl Maria von Weber's struggle to create modern German opera

Weber: Der_Freischütz -  Design for the Wolf's Glen scene - Weimar, 1822
Weber: Der_Freischütz -  Design for the Wolf's Glen scene - Weimar, 1822
The operas of Carl Maria von Weber remain something of problem, despite being highly important and significant in the development of German music, the works themselves are often much misunderstood and valued more for their influence on later composers like Richard Wagner than for their own sake. Outside German-speaking areas, performances of Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz are relatively rare and even in German-speaking areas it can be unusual, when Vienna State Opera performed a new production of Der Freischütz in 2019 it was the first time the opera had been performed there in over 20 years. And Weber's other two major operas, Euryanthe and Oberon remain little more than misunderstood curiosities.

Carl Maria von Weber was born in 1786, five years before his cousin Mozart's final German opera, Die Zauberflote was premiered, and Weber would not yet be twenty when Beethoven's only opera, Leonore, premiered in 1805; these were the giants of German opera. Carl Maria, studying in Vienna with Abbé Vogler would discover a commonality with one of Vogler's other pupils, the slightly younger Jakob Meyer Beer (born 1793) who, as Giacomo Meyerbeer, would revolutionise French opera.

Carl Maria Weber painted in 1825 by Ferdinand Schimon
Carl Maria Weber painted in 1825
by Ferdinand Schimon
After time in Breslau, Weber became the director of the opera in Dresden, where opera had played a significant role since the late 17th century when the first opera court theatre opened in 1667, and in the 18th century under composer Johann Hasse the company had its glory days. But the focus then, as in 1817 when Weber joined, was Italian opera and Weber had to struggle to establish the German opera company which was always regarded as secondary to the Italian opera company.

The common German operatic form of the time was the singspiel, essentially a play with music (our knowledge of them today is generally compromised by the fact that they are rarely performed with uncut dialogue). It had its origins in the 18th century as a popular genre, but playwrights and composers had taken up the form and created more serious operas.

The rise of German romanticism, generating interest in folklore and folk melodies alongside the desire for a stronger sense of German nationality, led to composers experimenting with the genre in opera. A fascination with the supernatural would also be a feature of this new genre of German romantic opera. A new sensitivity to man’s relationship to the landscape, and to the emotional power which music could conjure, would lead operas to start to explore the power of individual emotions. And this sense of German romanticism in opera would lead to the idea of a national style, so that operas by Albert Lortzing (1801-1851), Louis Spohr (1784-1859), Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), as well as those by Weber would explore similar themes.

The music theorist and writer ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822) also wrote a series of singspiel, the most successful of which Undine which premiered in Berlin 1816 at the Königliches Schauspielhaus on a German fairytale written in 1811. The same year, Louis Spohr's Faust premiered in Prague with Weber conducting, and in fact Weber's enthusiasm for the opera had led to the work's premiere and Meyerbeer would introduce the work in Berlin. Spohr's opera is very much influenced by German writers, not Goethe but Maximilian Klinger (1752-1831) and Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811).

These operas would demonstrate the potential for a German romantic opera, an ideal that Weber was seeking to establish. His opera Silvana which premiered in 1810 in Frankfurt is a strange work with the leading role played by a mime. Silvana is Weber's fifth opera but it would only be with his seventh opera that he managed to have any great success, and that was premiered in Berlin. Any success that Weber had with his operas elsewhere never seemed to reflect back on his struggles with the German opera company in Dresden.

Weber's seventh opera was, of course, Der Freischütz, this was premiered at the Königliches Schauspielhaus in Berlin. Der Freischütz remains a singspiel, for all the large-scale grandeur of the music, it used spoken dialogue. For the libretto, Weber had turned to Johann Friedrich Kind (1768 - 1843), a German writer and dramatist with experience of writing plays. The story is an old German folk-tale, republished in a collection by Johann August Apel (1771-1816) and Friedrich Laun (1770-1849) between 1811 and 1815. It had already been used as an opera, and in fact Louis Spohr was interested in creating a Der Freischütz of his own, but gave up on the idea when he heard Weber was working on it. Weber's librettist, Kind was a friend in Dresden and the two had started to talk about the opera in 1817 but Weber's duties at the Dresden court kept getting in the way.

Weber: Der Freischütz in 1822
Weber: Der Freischütz in 1822
The reception of Der Freischütz surpassed Weber's own hopes and it quickly became an international success, with productions in Vienna the same year followed by Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Munich, Karlsruhe, Königsberg, Prague, other German centres, Riga and Copenhagen. There are various threads in the opera, the celebration of Nature and the importance of man being in harmony with it, the folk tale idiom of much of the music, the idea of German national identity, and of course the use of the supernatural, as well as Weber's interest in thinking about the existence of God. The whole piece with its opposition of good and evil, and the use of the Hermit as Deus ex Machina, brings this home.

Unfortunately, Kind and Weber fell out, over the relative allocation of credit for Der Freischütz, this is a shame because Kind was an experienced dramatist and his libretto for Weber remains one of the most satisfactory that the composer set.

Weber's next opera, Euryanthe was commissioned by the court theatre in Vienna, the Kärntnertor Theater, as part of a bid to increase the number of German operas. Ironically the man behind this drive was the Italian, Domenico Barbaja (1777-1841), best known as the impresario who brought Rossini to Naples in 1810 leading to that composer's important sequence of opera seria for Naples. Barbaja also brought Rossini to Vienna to stage his operas and the sheer popularity of Rossini's operas caused problems for Weber when his opera Euryanthe was premiered in 1823, and led to the shelving entirely of Franz Schubert's most satisfactory opera Fierrabras (which had to wait until seven years after Schubert's death before any of the music from it was performed)..

Helmina von Chézy
Helmina von Chézy
With Euryanthe, Weber would break new ground and abandon spoken dialogue and write a through composed opera with the orchestra playing all the time. It was not the first German opera to do so, Johann Nepomuk Poissl (1783-1865) and Ignaz von Mosel (1772-1844) had already got there first, and Louis Spohr (a friend of Weber's, though a professional rival) was planning his own opera in the same style, Jessonda (which premiered in Kassel in 1823). It seems fairly certain that Spohr and Weber influenced each other in this development.

Unfortunately for the libretto, Weber turned to the writer Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856), who was part of the same literary circle in Dresden as Weber and Kind. Weber appreciated her poetry though he was less fond of her personally. Unfortunately, her poetic skills did not extend to sophistication of dramaturgy, and though Euryanthe had ground-breaking ideas, the plot mechanics are a little crude. It is a grand romantic opera, set in the world of Medieval chivalry, but some recent productions of the work have concentrated on the more psychological aspects of the piece and this reaps great rewards.

Christoph Loy directed it at the Theater an der Wien in 2019 (available on DVD from Naxos) and in the DVD booklet he talks about the need to trust the opera (unusually it is performed nearly uncut). Again, Weber is looking at good and evil, but here we don't have anything like the image of the satanic from Wolf's Glen scene from Der Freischütz, instead the evil is inside the humans, and we have a good pair, Max and Euryanthe, and an evil pair Eglantine and Lysiart.

We have a tendency to think of Euryanthe as an important precursor of Wagner (which it is, he was heavily indebted to it for Lohengrin, again with the good couple and the evil one), but it is important to take the opera on its own terms.

Both Der Freischütz and Euryanthe have another problem, the goodness of the heroines leads to them acting in a way which is rather too passive, both for modern tastes and for the good of the drama. Both operas would benefit dramatically from the way Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin is tempted to ask the questions which she ought not.

Euryanthe would not be Weber's final opera, he would leave a tantalising fragment in Die Drei Pintos (which was completed by Gustav Mahler), and write Oberon for London. Here James Robinson Planche's libretto was completely tailored to the English taste, which was for lots of spoken dialogue and not so much singing. With Oberon we are almost back in the realm of the English 17th century semi-opera, and it is a shame that Weber did not live long enough to transform it into the full scale German romantic opera that he intended.

Weber: Oberon - Madame Vestris as Fatima in London, 1826
Weber: Oberon - Madame Vestris as Fatima
in London, 1826
Weber accepted the commission from London because of the money, he was aware that he was ill and needed to make provision for his family. Planche (who wrote plays and pantomimes) delivered the libretto piecemeal and Weber gradually became aware that it would not be what was thought of as an opera in Germany. Like Euryanthe the opera is often dismissed thanks to the 'unmitigated awfulness' of the libretto, though Weber's music is superb and despite the perceived lack of operatic structure Weber has managed to introduced a remarkable degree of coherence and characterisation in the music.

Like Euryanthe, there have been a lot of attempts at tinkering over the years, though the conductor John Eliot Gardiner has stated that he feels that the original works best (he has recorded it with Hillevi Martinpelto, Jonas Kaufmann, Steve Davislim and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique on Philips, though this uses spoken narrations). I saw it given by New Sussex Opera in 2014 [see my review] and Harry Fehr's staging showed that an edited version of Planche's libretto can indeed work.

We know that Weber wanted to re-write the opera when he returned to Germany (he never returned, he died of TB in London), creating the sort of opera that he wanted, this never happened and no-amount of tinkering will give us Oberon the grand romantic German opera. Instead what we have is a work which hovers, somewhat uneasily, between German singspiel and English semi-opera, and which requires two tenors and a soprano all capable of combining heroic tone with elaborate passagework, and a cast of singing actors and acting singers. No small requirement, no wonder the work is rarely performed!

Operas by Weber:
  • Die Macht der Liebe und des Weins - 1798 - Singspiel - unperformed - lost
  • Das Waldmädchen - 1800 - Romantische Oper - Freiberg - only fragments survive
  • Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn - 1801/01 - Opera - Augsburg - dialogue lost
  • Rübezahl - 1804/05 - Opera - unperformed - fragments
  • Silvana - 1808/10 - Romantische Oper - Frankfurt
  • Abu Hassan - 1810/11 - Singspiel - Munich
  • Der Freischütz - 1817/21 - Romantische oper - Berlin
  • Die drei Pintos - 1820/24 - Komische oper - incomplete, finished by Mahler
  • Euryanthe - 1822/23 - Grosse Heroisch-Romantische Oper - Vienna
  • Oberon - 1825/26 - Romantische Oper - London
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Live music returns: Opera Holland Park's uplifting evening of operatic arias from an impressive line-up of performers - concert review
  • Creating new opera under lockdown: I chat to composer Alex Woolf about A Feast in the Time of Plague, his new opera with Sir David Pountney to be premiered by Grange Park Opera - interview
  • Zest and relish: Handel's comic masterpiece Semele directed by John Eliot Gardiner with young cast enjoying every minute - CD review
  • Media Vita reconsidered: Alamire's fine new recording takes advantage of the latest research into the structure of Sheppard's great antiphon - CD review
  • Stanford and Howells Remembered: John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers' influential recording returns in expanded format - CD review
  • Contemplative and contemporary: world premiere recording of Ian Venables's Requiem from Gloucester Cathedral - Cd review
  • Songs of our Times: Jessica Walker and Joe Atkins in cabaret for the Lichfield Festival - film review
  • The Invention of English Opera: part two, the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera - feature article
  • Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music - interview
  • Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome - CD review
  • Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3 - concert review
  • 'Home

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