A summer night's tale
Royal Albert Hall
Carl Maria von Weber: Euryanthe
Anne Schwanewilms (Euryanthe), Lauren Flanigan (Eglantine), John Daszak (Adolar), Pavlo Hunka (Lysiart), Clive Bayley (King Louis VI), Nicholas Sharratt (Rudolf), Rebecca von Lipinski (Bertha)
Mark Elder (conductor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne Chorus
Weber's Euryanthe could be regarded as the first pancake that came out wrong but was perfectly edible. Aspiring to create French-style grand opera for the German stage, Weber linked Italian and Singspiel-style arias with dramatic recitatives, all in verse, in a thoroughly romantic plot that added supernatural shivers, sublime nature and a pair of sub-Shakespearean villains to a simple traditional story of misogyny and womanly suffering. The libretto, by the theatrically inexperienced Helmina von Chezy, is widely held to be bad. Specifically, the plot is supposed to be overblown and full of holes, notably in the eponymous heroine's failure to explain how the villain Lysiart really came by the ring that is supposed to prove her infidelity. In fact, the libretto provides a coherent surface -- the high-minded Euryanthe is so ashamed of the real way that Lysiart got the ring that she cannot tell it -- while leaving underlying silences that are both expressive and lifelike. It did the job of providing words for a remarkably powerful music drama faithful to its Shakespearean models (mainly Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale) that also foreshadowed not just Lohengrin but Pelléas and Gurrelieder in its combination of emotional reality and mystery, evoked by a "mediaeval" setting.
Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment took a top-down approach to this potentially unwieldy work that also interestingly highlighted its near-modernism. They seemed to work, like Weber, with the ghostly spirit of the drama first, and to shape the detail of the music around it. A sudden pianissimo section in the overture became a space in which a very faint but real presence hid, nominally the ghost of Emma, the suicide sister of Euryanthe's betrothed Adolar, but also a darkness that haunts the opera. Euryanthe's unaccompanied recitatives, which reflect both her over-scrupulous sense of guilt and her innocence, were movingly framed and exposed, leaving room for feelings that the orchestra could not crystallize. The more conventional set-pieces were essential to the drama as well as the plot, as Weber intended: Adolar's Minne in praise of Euryanthe's fidelity in the first act is an expression of his insecurity and an implicit challenge to other men which the wicked Lysiart takes up, while the choruses of courtiers at the start and of huntsmen in the third act represent the king's (benign) chivalric order which ensures that all will be well in spite of the weakness and wickedness that make up the action. All the detail and occasional pictorialism was still there, but in spite of the high music-to-plot ratio, it moved irresistibly.
The singers, as usual in Glyndebourne productions, were superbly cast and, like the orchestra and chorus, impeccably prepared. Anne Schwanewilms in the title role looked like a fairy-tale princess (she seemed to be wearing her white gown costume from the production, unlike the rest of the singers who were in concert black) and sang with ethereal beauty and sadness. Both her long blond curls and her sweet tone, which had just a hint of underlying steel, contrasted splendidly with Lauren Flanigan's semi-punk bottle blond do and fierce vocal attack as the deceitful Eglantine, who bullies Euryanthe's secret out of her. Flanigan was splendidly the most overtly theatrical of the singers, but Pavlo Hunka was also a fine villain, suggesting a solid mass of nastiness around decidedly unmotivated evil, and singing with a sinister dark tone. John Daszak as Adolar never quite sang beautifully, but his occasionally fragile sound was plaintive and exactly right for the insecure and permanently pained knight looking into the abyss. Clive Bayley was authoritative as the king. The Glyndebourne Chorus was, also as usual, excellent, and provided the two remaining solo roles.
Richard Jones' production for Glyndebourne has had mixed reviews, perhaps because it invokes apparently anachronistic ideas about the soul. The monster that attacks Euryanthe and Adolar as he drags her in his rage through the wilderness has been particularly mocked as a projection of Adolar's superego (or maybe murderous id). But performing without scenery on an apron behind the orchestra, in a semi-staging by Suzannah Waters, the singers acted out the drama without any apparent intrusive ideas.
Altogether, this performance was a revelation. It showed Weber as a dramatic as well as a musical innovator. Sadly, the Albert Hall was maybe half-empty, perhaps because of Weber's and the work's low esteem, or perhaps because it was a long concert on a working-day Monday night. Those who heard the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 must have felt the musical impact, but you had to be there.