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Yet another intriguing rarity

The Richard B, Fisher Center
07/25/2014 -  & July 27*, 30, August 1, 3, 2014
Carl Maria von Weber: Euryanthe
Ellie Dehn (Euyanthe), William Burden (Adolar), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Eglantine), Ryan Kuster (Lysiart), Peter Volpe (King Luwig), Margaret Dudley (Bertha), Nathan Siler (Rudolph), Ann Chiaverini (Emma)
American Symphony Chorus, James Bagwell (chorus master), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)
Kevin Newbury (director), Victoria Tzykun (set designer), Jessica Jahn (costume designer), D. M. Wood (lighting designer)

Leon Botstein and his Bard forces have once again uncovered a neglected opera, this time Carl Maria von Weber’s “grand, heroic-romantic” work Euryanthe. It was premiered in 1823 just two years after the composer’s big success Der Freischütz. Weber was understandably trying to replicate the earlier work’s success and there are sections of Euryanthe that call to mind parts of Freischütz, but the work never gained anything like an equal place in the repertory. Most blame for this has been assigned to the libretto; this Bard presentation certainly proves its musical worth. Leon Botstein managed to unearth the score as presented at the Viennese premiere (Weber later made changes) and decided to go with the composer’s original version.

The plot hinges upon someone who dies before the opera begins. A noble lady, Emma, distraught at the death of her lover in battle, kills herself. As a result her soul can never be at rest and her mortal sin hangs over her surviving family. Her brother, Count Adolar, is betrothed to Euryanthe. She knows the dreadful secret and shares it with a confidant, Eglantine, unaware that Eglantine harbours hatred. Eglantine teams up with Lysiart, a man who envies Adolar and desires Euryanthe for himself. Their plotting drives the lovers apart; the apparently faithless Euryanthe is shunned by all (in a scene much like that at the end of Act II of Tannhäuser), and Adolar forfeits his wealth. Of great significance is a ring. There is also a menacing serpent (dispatched by the heroine). After due turmoil and tribulation, it all comes right in the end.

If it sounds like something Wagner might have come up with - well, he arguably did, with Lohengrin (although in this work the good end happily). Another Wagnerian similarity lies in Euryanthe’s well-developed leitmotifs.

The cleverest aspect of Kevin Newbury’s staging was the decision to stage Emma’s suicide during the overture and also have her restless ghost appear at intervals to remind us of just what drives the plot. The action has been relocated from the 12th to the 19th century, although I believe ghosts and serpents were more prevalent in pre-Enlightenment Europe. There is a lot of chorus work, including stretches for male or female only (they sounded great) but there was a lot of standing around or unmotivated exits and entrances. (Not all the problems posed by the libretto were surmounted. We have to wait 35 minutes before the title character finally makes her appearance, for example.)

I don’t know if the acoustics of the Sosnoff's Theater's orchestra pit are problematic, but the familiar, sweeping overture sounded choppy because the legato lines of the string instruments were often barely audible. Still, we were treated to a staunch traversal of the work, with more than merely decent singing throughout. William Burden as the beleaguered good guy, Adolar, vividly expressed the character’s anguish and fervour. A different sort of fervour is expressed by the male villain, Lysiart, especially in a big aria reminiscent of Max’s “Durch die Wälder” in Der Freischütz, during which Ryan Kuster had a bit of a struggle. Wendy Bryn Harmer was minxily glamorous in looks and voice as the conniving Eglantine. Ellie Dehn kept upping the ante as her character’s tribulations multiplied - the result was a riveting portrayal. Peter Volpe did a nice turn as the king (supposedly King Louis VI of France, known as “Louis the Fat” - but who cares.)

Musically (and even dramatically) this is a substantial work. Its rarity (it was last staged in North America in 1914) is a pity. A new production is about to be presented in Frankfurt - this might lead to wider dissemination.

Next year’s rarity at Bard: Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (dating from 1906).

Michael Johnson



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