Thursday, 4 September 2014

Salzburg Schubert Fierrabras Knights in white satin

Knights in white sarin - Schubert's opera Fierrabras at the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Fierrabras is an opera with no performance tradition, whatsoever. The only performances between 1835 and the 1980's were concert performances, some in greatly shortened versions. Arguably, there's little Beidermeier about FierrabrasIt didn't catch the popular mood.  In an era when opera audiences fell in love with Rossini, Fierrabras might have seemed a throwback. On the other hand, for modern audiences it's an insight into Schubert's ideas on music drama,  inspired as it was by his imagination and by Germanic Singspiel.

In Peter Stein's production,Charlemagne's Knights are clothed in white satin and shining silver chain mail. Later they'll carry palm branches, like Christians on Palm Sunday. The stark black-and-white colour scheme is perfectly apt. When the knights are imprisoned in darkness, their costumes pick up just enough light to remind us that they're the good guys and that they will, eventually, be saved.  Visually, this is a very beautiful production, but it's also intelligently thought through. No mawkish kitsch here. The Knights represent an idealized dream, not reality.

The elegance of this setting (designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and Annamaria Heinreich) is utterly magical.  Lovely as this production is to look at, it's also a lot more intelligent than the sort of mindless fodder that pleases so-called "traditionalists". The backdrops are black-and-white too, scored and cross-hatched like engravings in antique story books. Stein  reminds us that Schubert got his ideas from books. He was a Romantic, in every sense of the word, using medieval images as a language his contemporaries would have recognized as artistic licence. In  Claus Guth's Fierrabras for Opernhaus Zürich in 2005,  Schubert himself appeared, a silent figure scribbling away seated at a giant desk, the singing roles got up like characters in 1820's Singspiele. Peter Stein develops the same idea but in an infinitely less confusing manner.

In many ways,  Fierrabras is almost unstageable. The libtretto (Josef Kupelweieser) is obtuse and pure fiction.  Emma (Julia Kleiter) daughter of Karl der Große (Georg Zeppenfield) is secretly  in love with Eginhard (Benjamin Bernheim)  Fierrabras (Michael Schade) the son of the Moorish King Boland (Peter Kálmán) has been captured by Roland (Markus Werba),  Eginhard is captured by Boland and Roland has to save him.To complicate matters, Fierrabras and his sister Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann) met Emma and Eginhard in Rome, which explains why all ends neatly. .If only Christians and Muslims solved things so easily!

Faced with multiple sets of would-be lovers, Schubert employs similar voice types and a lot more spoken dialogue than might appeal to non-German speakers or modern audiences. There are some lovely choruses and individual arias, all well performed.   Röschmann's monologue was specially effective, since her face materialized out of the gloom. As a plot device, Florina is a deus ex machina, but Röschmann makes her feel real.  As music drama, Fierrabras is as clumsy as the story books Schubert and his contemporaries would have read. But its charms work  as long as you don't expect anything on the lines of opera after 1830.  There are many passages (especially the choruses) which are recognizably Schubert, to those familiar with his part songs and larger pieces like the longer ballads. For me, anyway, three hours passed like a flash and I watched all over again.  Stein's Fierrabras is an excellent introduction to the opera and to the style.  Enjoy it here on medici tv and hope it makes it to DVD.

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