Once again, the Bard Summer Music Festival has lived up to its reputation for giving classical music lovers a chance to hear lesser known or underperformed gems of the operatic repertory. This summer it has taken on one of German romantic opera’s most controversial masterpieces—Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe (1823).
In introducing the work to opening night dinner guests, Conductor Leon Botstein characterized it as “the most talked about and studied opera that’s never performed” in the U.S. According to program notes, it hasn’t received a full professional staging in this country since the 1914-15 Metropolitan Opera season. Botstein declined to elaborate why, preferring to let the audience figure it out for themselves, which wasn’t difficult.
On one hand, the music is gorgeous. With this piece, Weber was trying to create a new kind of grand opera that merged dialogue with aria, assigned leitmotivs to key characters and events, and underscored the emotional life of his characters with rich orchestral color. (Sound familiar? Richard Wagner wasn’t the first to use these techniques; he owed a lot to Weber.) As the opera opens, listeners can hear traces of Mozartian refinement in Weber’s arias. But then they veer into coloratura display, and the orchestra wells up under the singers and takes the music in unexpected directions. In fact, the score throughout is distinguished by highly inventive orchestration. In Euryanthe, the orchestra plays a much more important role than merely accompanying the singers. Different groups of instruments—especially the violins, cellos, and bases— contribute their own distinct voices to the dramatic dialogue, in arresting and haunting ways.
While the music is beautiful, however, the libretto is so implausible that for more than one and a half centuries critics have been nearly unanimous in panning it. (As if no other opera libretto is silly!) The plot centers on Euryanthe, a virtuous but naïve heroine who is tricked into revealing her lover’s dark family secret by a pair of jealous, scheming rivals. She is humiliated and ostracized when her betrayal is revealed. Nonetheless, she remains loyal to her lover, Adolar, even though he pledges to kill her and abandons her to die in the desert after she saves his life. As if to validate the consensus that this is ridiculous, the Bard opening night audience continually burst into laughter at the supertitles during key dramatic moments.
The problem seemed to be a too-literal translation of the libretto’s heavily sentimental German romantic poetry. Would it have been a crime against art to update the English supertitle translation (not the German text the singers were actually using), in order to make the libretto more accessible for modern audiences? It’s almost as if the creative team behind this production wanted the audience to cringe at the words, as a kind of perverse educational experience. Despite these issues, however, operagoers willing to give it a chance will find this production has many rewards, including the rare opportunity to see and hear the work that pioneered many of the techniques associated with Wagner’s music dramas.
Among its many assets, Bard’s production boasts two first class voices—tenor William Burden as the virtuous knight, Adolar, and soprano Ellie Dehn, as his much-maligned lover, Euryanthe. Dehn, in particular, has a gorgeous melting quality to her voice, and used her considerable acting skills to create an appealingly vulnerable Euryanthe. Burden was every bit the hero—his clear tenor voice was in fine form all evening, attacking every difficult vocal passage with brio. They made an attractive pair—it was easy to imagine men fighting over the beautiful Dehn, and women smitten with the older, but still handsome, Burden.
This opera is famously built around two pairs of opposites—noble, trusting lovers and the jealous, scheming rivals determined to destroy their happiness. As the evil Lysiart, baritone Ryan Kuster was a good visual foil— tall, dark, and handsome, with the oily charm and polished manner of a seasoned courtier. He was entirely credible as the younger, good-looking seducer older men fear. As Eglantine, mezzo-soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer, with her big voice and plump figure, looked and sounded like a jealous viper, determined to destroy her rivals and win by trickery what others have earned honestly. Kuster delivered an adequate, if not spectacular, rendition of the opera’s most well-known showpiece, the extraordinary Act 2 opening aria, “Wo Berg’Ich Mich?” Yet the famous duet for Lysiart and Eglantine that follows was curiously lacking in impact—which is strange because they have some of the best music in the opera. This may not have been their fault. For some reason, the director chose to treat them as if they were wooden blocks, moving them around the stage in controlled tableaus, eschewing natural gesture.
For me, there should be unity in all the elements of an opera for it to be successful. Director Kevin Newbury—whose previous work on The Love for Danae I liked very much—decided to set Euryanthe in the Victorian, rather than the medieval, era for which it was written. This creates a disconnect between what the audience sees and what they hear and read in the supertitles. The libretto describes warring knights, castles in France, chivalry, honor and courtly love. But in this production, the first two acts take place in a Victorian ballroom. I can see why the creative team fell in love with the ballroom set—it is beautiful: muted gray walls with white wainscoting, framing three magnificent landscape paintings that looked as if they came from the Hudson River School. But beautiful as it is, the set is wrong for this story.
There were other confusing details, as well. The director forced tenor William Burden to wear a leg brace for most of the evening, limping around the stage all night with a cane, apparently to add pathos to the character. But the leg brace and cane made a mockery of Adolar’s fiery challenges to kill his rival by the sword. In addition, the chorus was treated as if they were colorless automatons in a 1930s Soviet art film, processing on and off the set in straight lines, carrying chairs, or inexplicably herded into the back corner of the stage. This was an injustice to the chorus, which under the direction of James Bagwell did an outstanding job—especially in the thrilling Act 3 hunting chorus.
In fairness, Kevin Newbury did come up with one bit of inventive stagecraft that aided the story greatly: an opening pantomime of Emma, Adolar’s sister, killing herself after she learns that her lover has died in battle. This is the painful family secret Adolar hides. The pantomime—performed behind a painted scrim during the overture—was an effective and economical way to introduce this important element to the audience.
Undoubtedly, the reason behind the many disconnects in this production is the current fashion for updating opera scenarios in the vain hope of appealing to younger audiences. Here’s why it makes little sense in this case. According to Weber scholar John Warrack, the story for Euryanthe originated in a French romance from the 13th century—the medieval era of troubadours whose music and stories celebrated chivalry and courtly love. Weber liked the Euryanthe story for a variety of reasons, but surely part of the appeal was the fact that Weber was something of a troubadour himself. Weber’s favorite instrument was the guitar, and he spent his youth traveling around with his father’s itinerant theatrical troupe, enthralling listeners with his ballads and songs. And like a medieval knight, Weber prized personal honor—paying off every last one of his father debts and his own before he died, even though it caused him considerable financial difficulty. In fact, Weber took a lucrative commission in London during the last years of his short life, even though doctors warned the trip would hasten his death, so his family would not be left destitute. He never saw his wife and children again. And during his career, he was no stranger to intrigue. Even though he was a celebrated composer, he had to put up with endless hostility, personal insults, and professional sabotage perpetrated against him by jealous rivals during his critical years at the Dresden Opera. Biographers note this often drove him to despair and weakened his precarious health, yet his dedication to his art never flagged.
Despite this rich back story offering lots of insight into Weber and his world, Newbury decided Euryanthe is primarily a story about a woman’s right to “control her own body” and the masculine fear of feminine sexuality— a perspective more akin to our sex-obsessed era than Weber’s. Apparently, this was the rationale for setting the production in the Victoria era. But Euryanthe is not about sex, so much as it is about honor and personal integrity, central concerns of Weber’s life at the time he wrote this opera. Robert Schumann recognized the seriousness with which Weber approached this undertaking, when he wrote that Euryanthe was Weber’s “….noble heart’s blood; the opera certainly cost him a piece of his life, but through it he has also attained immortality.” It’s a disappointment that, despite its many admirable qualities, this production of Euryanthe fails to capture that heroic spirit.
(Weber’s Euryanthe will have its final performance on August 3, at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale on the Hudson, New York.)