Monday 26 October 2020

An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon

Weber: Oberon - Lucia Elizabeth Vestris as Fatima in an 1826 etching
Weber: Oberon
Lucia Elizabeth Vestris as Fatima in an 1826 etching
Carl Maria von Weber's opera Oberon is commonly regarded as an honourable failure, the German composer's surprisingly coherent attempt to triumph over an incoherent English libretto. Yet the piece contains much of Weber's finest music and if we are to understand it and, perhaps, love it, then we need to put the music into context and try and realise what the work's librettist (James Robertson Planché) and commissioner (Charles Kemble, manager of Covent Garden) were trying to achieve.

In writing Oberon, Weber was attempting to follow up on the huge success of his 1821 opera, Der Freischütz (in fact the composer's 7th opera), with its combination of spoken dialogue, folk-opera and high-romantic melodrama,  and the conspicuous lack of success of Euryanthe (1823), with its through-composed structure yet poorly conceived libretto. He was also trying to make money; the London commission paid well and Weber knew his time was limited (he had TB). Unfortunately, trying to create a German romantic opera repertoire was tricky, librettos remained a problem. Weber fell out with writer and playwright Johann Friedrich Kind (1768-1843), who had written the libretto of Der Freischütz, and the poetess Helmina von Chezy (1783-1856) proved not entirely up to the task of creating Euryanthe [yet, the director Christoph Loy whose production of the opera debuted at the Theater an der Wien in 2019 has found much to explore in the work, see my article Towards German Romantic Opera].

Weber received the text of Oberon piecemeal, so he only gradually became aware that it wasn't what he considered an opera. 


That is because it isn't. Part of our dissatisfaction with Oberon is the way the libretto fails to match our expectation of a high romantic opera. We need to understand a bit more about that the text was, in fact, trying to achieve.

Oberon was written for Covent Garden, which was under the management of Charles Kemble (1775-1854), scion of the distinguished theatrical dynasty (his father was an actor/manager, his mother an actress, his sister was the distinguished actress Sarah Siddons). It should be emphasised that Covent Garden (for all its subsequent incarnation) was not an opera house as we know it, the programme was more mixed than that. Until 1847, His Majesty's Theatre was the main home of opera in London and a number of Rossini's operas, comic and serious, had their UK premieres there in the 1820s. 

The most popular type of musical entertainment in London at the time remained something akin to ballad opera - a play with singing. And in many ways Oberon can be related both to ballad opera and to the semi-operas of Henry Purcell, those hybrids of singing, speaking and spectacle that the English were so fond of. Seen from this point of view, the libretto for Oberon by James Robertson Planché (1796-1880) is not terrible.

Planché was the house writer at Covent Garden, turning out plays and pantomimes as well as operas. He and Henry Bishop (1787-1856), the house composer, would both create operas together and adapt foreign works to English taste. For Weber, Planché introduced more arias than he would do normally. Oberon probably had more singing in it than was usual in such entertainment at Covent Garden.

And interesting point here is that in works like Mozart's singspiel Die Zauberflöte we hardly ever hear the full, very wordy libretto. But there is an important difference between the libretto for Mozart's singspiel and the text for Oberon, despite including more musical numbers than he would normally do, Planché's text shies away from music at key moments in the drama, including the act finales, as well as having a number of characters that do not sing. The basic problem was that the English wanted, essentially, a play with songs and spectacle, and the advertisements for Kemble's production of Oberon emphasise the spectacular nature of the enterprise.

As an example of the way the piece turns away from music, consider the scene towards the end of Act Three. The heroine, Reiza, has been captured by Almanzor,  Emir of Tunis. The hero, Huon is in disguise and penetrates Almanzor's harem, there he finds not Reiza but Almanzor's wife, Roshana, who tries to seduce him. But Almansor and Roshana are both spoken roles, Roshana's scene with Huon is entirely dialogue, the music jumps from Huon's Rondo anticipating seeing Reiza to a scene where slave girls try to seduce him. Then the rest of the plot is in dialogue, with only a single ensemble as music. This is well away from the grand finale of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, and a lot closer to Purcell's Fairy Queen.

We must, however give Planché credit for creating a setting and providing some set pieces which were designed to appeal to Weber. Der Freischütz was popular in London, even though it was known through a series of bastardised productions, and Planché's Oberon utilised Weber's gift for the picturesque, the supernatural and the exotic. It gave Weber the chance to use music to characterise the three different sets of characters, the knightly Huon and his chivalric world, the Orient and the fairy, and of course the fairies here are far from the nice creatures.

Ferdinand Schimon: Carl Maria von Weber in 1825
Ferdinand Schimon: Carl Maria von Weber in 1825
Charles Kemble had written to Weber in 1824, following successful productions of Der Freischütz in London, but Weber had demurred at first, he was tired and ill after the effort of Euryanthe. But he agreed, and selected the subject of Oberon; he was also offered Faust, but Weber's friend Louis Spohr (1784-1859) had written a Faust which Weber had premiered in Prague in 1816. Weber left Dresden in February 1826 with Oberon largely complete, except for the overture which he completed, as was his practice, shortly before the premiere. The leading tenor, however, John Braham (1774-1856) was something of a divo and insisted on new arias to show off his voice.  Evidently none of the singers could act, except for Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (1797-1856) who played Fatima. (An interesting point, her mother was Teresa Bartolozzi, a distinguished pianist to whom Haydn dedicated a set of piano trios in 1797).

The opera was received in England with rapturous applause, but Weber was dissatisfied, and he intended to make a radically revised version in German with sung recitatives. But this was not to be, he died two months after the premiere of Oberon, the day before he was due to return home.

The other problem with the opera is the casting. Weber's importance in German Romantic opera and his pre-figuring of Wagner should not blind us to the fact that Huon and Reiza have as much in common with Tamino and Pamina as they do Siegfried and Brünnhilde. When Frank Dunlop did a concert staging of Oberon at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986, Huon was sung by the heldentenor Paul Frey (at the time a notable Lohengrin) and Oberon by Philip Langridge; Frey's grasp of Huon's coloratura was sketchy and parts of one of his arias were sung by Langridge! [see the review on the Opera Scotland website]

There have been attempts to remedy the opera, to make good the 'missing' music, and Weber's pupil Julius Benedict (1804-1885) create a version for London in 1860, and Gustav Mahler's adaptation was often commonly performed, yet Oberon remains a work which languishes.  As John Eliot Gardiner writes in his booklet note for his 2002 recording of Oberon, it is a piece about which it is easy to be rude. Yet, for all the limitations of the libretto and its construction, Weber's music has a magical consistency about it, almost as if he could hear the full German Heroic Romantic opera in his head, the Oberon that he planned but never completed. 

Gardiner has conducted the opera in three different productions, the complete Planché in English, a German adaptation returning to the original Wieland poem which was the first inspiration, and a semi-staging with narrator. It is this latter, in 2002, on which his recording is based. Gardiner's view is that the concert staging with narrator is the best form for the opera. For their 2014 staging, directed by Harry Fehr, New Sussex Opera successfully used a half-way house between full-Planché and narrator, including some dialogue along with linking narrative for Oberon and Puck. This worked as a satisfactory drama [see my review].

John Eliot Gardiner's recording of Oberon [available from Amazon] is surely the 'go to' version. It uses period instruments, it is in English and it features the young Jonas Kaufmann! But there is much satisfaction to be had from the classic Rafael Kubelik recording on Deutsche Gramophon. It is in German, but it features Birgit Nilsson (who is terrific in 'Ozean, du Ungeheuer') and the young Placido Domingo. There is one recording curiosity that it is worth searching out, Maria Callas' recording of 'Ocean, though Mighty Monster' sung in, admittedly heavily accented, English [available on YouTube].

Further reading:

  • Towards German romantic opera: Carl Maria von Weber's struggle to create modern German opera - my article  
  • Weber's Der Freischütz in a fine new modern recording with Lise Davidsen as Agathe - CD review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 - opera review
  • Staging a rarity in Sussex: Weber's Oberon from New Sussex Opera - opera review 
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate - Cd review
  • Everything via Association: composer Vic Hoyland on his 75th birthday - interview
  • Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC  - CD review
  • From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad  - CD review
  • The case against Wagner - David Faiman's Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer - book review
  • Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas and more: historically informed performances from cellist Viola de Hoog and pianist Mikayel Balyan - CD review 
  • Beethoven and Black muses: Gweneth Ann Rand, Simon Lepper, Stephan Loges, Eugene Asti at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra at 90: in advance of the orchestra's celebratory concert, Tony looks at its distinguished history - feature
  • Six Songs of Melmoth: premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival  - concert review
  • A song is a song is a song: composer Errollyn Wallen on her multi-faceted career and her forthcoming EP with King's College Choir  - interview
  • From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Home

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