Carl Maria von Weber Oberon at Cadogan Hall with the New Sussex Opera. Like many Weber operas it's not easy to stage because so much predicates on magic. In this case magic plus medieval and exotic "Eastern" fantasy. The New Sussex Opera will be doing a concert performance with Adrian Dwyer singing Sir Huon, Sally Silver (Reiza) and Adam Tunnicliffe as Oberon. Like Felix Mendelssohn before him, Weber turned to England with great hopes.Weber even tried to learn the language so he could set the English text correctly. Unfortunately, he died, It's important to hear Oberon in English, partly because it emphasizes the Shakespearean connections and also because English is a language not well served in opera. It doesn't have the fulsome lushness of Italian, or the innate drama of German, nor the elegance of French. So hearing Oberon in English, the language in which it was conceived, connects better to the natural ambience in the music.
Huon de Bordeaux, Duc de Guienne, has killed Charlemagne's son and is sent on a suicide mission to kill Haroun el-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad. He escapes with supernatural help from Oberon, King of the Elves. If that's not enough, Huon is marooned on an island with Reiza, the Caliph's daughter, who's captured by Brigands and sold into slavery. Wild tempests, stirring storms, exotic orientalism and more than a touch of forbidden sex with infidels. Also, magic hunting horns and Oberon, rushing to the rescue astride a swan. The story is based on an English translation of a German text based on a medieval French chanson de geste, Huon de Bordeaux. In the 8th century Charlemagne really did exchange emissaries with the Turks, but the love drama and fairy elements are sheer fantasy. What a heady mix! Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon shows how zany the early Romantic Imagination could be, still coloured by the wild, exotic excesses of the baroque.
There are major recordings notably Keilberth, 1953 available on Opera Today which is not commercially available, and the 1971 version which Kubelik conducts with a big-name cast (Prey, Domingo, Nilsson, Auger, Grobe). These have been reissued in different forms, some without dialogue, but for me, spoken dialogue is an essential part of the experience. There's nothing realistic about the plot. Thus the importance of John Eliot Gardiner's recording, made in London in 1998. It's in English, which fits the ethereal brightnness of Weber's music beautifully. Period-informed practice reveals the originality in the writing. There's lots of dialogue, as was common for music drama in 1826, which Gardiner does not sacrifice. The text is hokey, but that's part of its quaint charm. In any case, without narration to hold the plot together, Oberon falls apart and becomes more like a series of disconnected sketches, which is unfair to Weber. Gardiner used a proper actor, Robert Allam, who could declaim in hyperbolic form, capturing the hammy spirit of the libretto. Oberon is fun, especially if we enter into its improbable fantasy.
Another secret weapon in Gardiner's approach was Jonas Kaufmann. In 1998, Kaufmann was affordable, and was singing a lot of early 19th century work like Loewe operas and Schumann music drama. Now he commands mega money from mainstream blockbusters. But in Oberon, his voice is remarkably pure and fresh, ringing with and almost heldentenor ping. Ravishing. Hopefully the recording will bring more Kaufmann fans to Weber and early German opera. In 1998, Kaufmann spoke with a heavy German accent, but that hardly matters. Huon's a strange fantasy character and Charlemange ran the first European Union. Polyglot's fine in the circumstances. Besides, Kaufmann's voice is so utterly, absolutely magical.