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Off with the fairies

03/21/2002 -  
Carl Maria von Weber: Oberon
Steve Davislim (Oberon), Hillevi Martinpelto (Reiza), Marina Comparato (Fatima), Charles Workman (Sir Huon), William Dazeley (Sherasmin), Katharine Fuge (First mermaid), Elin Manahan Thomas (Second mermaid), Frances Bourne (Puck), Roger Allam (Narrator)

John Eliot Gardiner (conductor/director)
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir

John Eliot Gardiner in a programme note for this performance compares Weber's Oberon with the Magic flute and the Abduction from the seraglio, in its Singspiel and popular format as well in its themes. There is a supernatural marital ding-dong, and as a result a noble but dim youth is made to fall in love with an unknown young woman, who he has to rescue from the court in Bagdad and the attentions of an oriental bad guy and who stands fast against all threats. Although the romantic elements are there (notably in the supernatural scenes and the heroine's Ur-Wagnerian lament on the seashore), the music is suprisingly classical, at times showing the first shoots of bel canto.

But Oberon differs from the more familiar (and musically similar) Freischütz in that it was written for London, and, like London productions from The fairy queen to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it is an unwieldy sprawl of arias, comic scenes, set pieces and episodes designed purely to show off fancy scene-changing machinery and fancier sets. It is close in polymorphous spirit to the ancient romances and their modern successors from which its plot derives, and closer still to Bollywood theological movies. A concert performance has a chance of showing off the beauties of the music, but it is unlikely to justify the work as a whole. Of course, Oberon makes no claims to high seriousness, unlike Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerke. There is probably no philosophical betrayal in extracting conventionally enjoyable items and presenting them in the now familiar, comparatively cheap, format in which a jokey narrator summarizes the plot between musical items.

Perhaps this was not a performance to see too soon after Les Arts Florissants' magnificent Ulisse, also nominally semi-staged at the Barbican, but Oberon in concert was pleasant enough, mildly amusing at times, not so irritating that you'd think of leaving at the interval, but probably not worth going out of your way to see. Fortunately, it is part of a recording tour: the CD will make a nice evening's listening for those who like such things, quite possibly a greater number than can have made it to the live performances. The orchestra was a bit rough hewn at some points, but the singers and choir put up a good show. Hillevi Martinpelto was magnificent as the (extremely blond) oriental princess Reiza, finding both Mozartian and Wagnerian style in the right places. Marina Comparato as her sidekick Fatima sang attractively and belly danced for Italy. Charles Workman was suitably dim as Sir Huon, the hero, and sang heroically. William Dazeley as Sherasmin, his sidekick, was a baritone equivalent. Steve Davislim was a demonic Oberon, well aided by Frances Bourne as Puck. The Monteverdi Choir wore silly costumes and impersonated waves heroically. Roger Allam narrated in the style of Douglas Smith on Round the Horne, without the volcano impersonation.

H.E. Elsom



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