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composed by franz schubert

performed at the 2014 salzburg festival

In the world of opera today, the standard repertoire is being performed to death, while works of enormous interest from the seventeenth century onward lie moldering in obscurity. Programming unknown compositions from classical music’s golden age is one of the most important activities that august musical organizations can undertake. Last summer, the Salzburg Festival provided audiences a rare opportunity to hear an opera by history’s greatest composer of art song, Franz Schubert, a work never performed during his lifetime and barely heard since then: Fierrabras.

It would be gratifying to report that a long-lost gem has finally been restored to the repertoire. But though Fierrabras contains many moments of turbulent beauty, it is encumbered by a libretto of such incompetence as to neutralize even Schubert’s genius, resulting in an evening of increasing tedium. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

Schubert’s love affair with opera began at age fifteen when a performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride moved him to tears. A feverish study of Gluck’s operas followed. Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio were also seminal influences, along with the operas of Luigi Cherubini and Gaspare Spontini. By the time Schubert started composing Fierrabras in 1823, he had written ten works for the stage, most of them German singspiele, only three of which had been ­mounted. He had higher hopes for Fierrabras, however, since he had actually received a commission for it, whereas his earlier works were composed on spec. Unfortunately, the commissioning Kärntnertortheater, an official Hapsburg court theater, chose one of its own administrators as the librettist. Schubert picked the poems for his songs with care, drawing on such­ ­titans of German literature as Goethe, Schiller, and Heine, but he was less discriminating when it came to opera texts, so urgent was his longing to enter that eternally enticing domain. His arrangement with the Kärntnertor would prove fateful—and fatal.

If Josef Kupelwieser, the Kärntnertor’s secretary and designated librettist, had any previous experience writing plays or libretti, there is neither record of it nor reason to infer it. Kupelwieser was the brother of Schubert’s friend Leopold, a painter who created a persuasive sketch of the composer in 1821. Not unwisely, Kupelwieser decided to exploit the contemporary craze for medieval heroic romance, choosing a story ­dating back to twelfth-century French chansons de geste and subsequently reworked in a seventeenth-century play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca.

This story takes us back to the days of Charlemagne. Crusaders dispatched by the Frankish emperor have won a battle over the Moorish king Boland. The victors bring Moorish prisoners back to Charlemagne’s court; Boland’s son, Fierrabras, is among them. Fierrabras recognizes Charlemagne’s daughter Emma, with whom he had fallen in love (unbeknownst to her) during a previous trip to Rome. When ­Fierrabras observes Emma’s secret love for a lowly knight in the Christian court, however, he immediately renounces his own claims and vows to support the pair in their effort to win ­Charlemagne’s blessing.

Thus in one stroke does Kupelwieser expel his greatest source of potential dramatic interest, dismantling a love triangle that in an Italian opera would have given rise to three hours of jealousy, passion, and revenge. In its place, a bewilderingly endless series of skirmishes between the Christians and the Moors ensues, with one side up, then down, then up again, resulting in a plot that continuously returns to square one, resembling the movie Groundhog Day but without the laughs.

Things get worse for Fierrabras. Emma and her beloved knight, ­Eginhard, have unsuccessfully tried to elope. Fierrabras stops them, thinking at first that Emma is being abducted. Charlemagne mistakenly accuses Fierrabras of Eginhard’s own thwarted elopement plan; Eginhard stands by silently as Charlemagne throws our hero into a dungeon. Soon, however, even that potential dramatic conflict dissipates as ­Eginhard vows to reveal his own culpability to the king. Throughout it all, Kupelwieser’s language is stilted and archaic, conveying only colorless abstractions and generic emotions. ­Unfortunately, in Schubert’s eagerness for a staged opera, he appears to have accepted the libretto as is, demanding no revisions.

The music little resembles Schubert’s famous songs. He has mastered the more public, declamatory nature of opera, deploying the wider sound palette of the orchestra to expert effect, with particularly sinuous contributions from the clarinet (adumbrating Der Hirt auf dem Felsen [“The Shepherd on the Rock”]). Fierrabras does not contain many solo arias, but instead offers an imaginative variety of ensembles and choruses. A gorgeous duet, Weit über Glanz und Erdenschimmer (“Far above the glitter and gleam of earth”), most resembles the diaphanous, harmonically mesmerizing idiom of Schubert’s songs. Flirtatious trills in the strings and woodwinds float over a panting orchestral pulse in the opening; the harmonies supporting the interlocking vocal lines hover exquisitely between minor and major, creating the signature emotional seduction of a Schubert song.

Further musical highlights include a taut trio between Emma, her father Charlemagne, and Fierrabras, filled with anguished dissonances stretched to the breaking point, and the brief chorus of knights that ends the second act, which recalls the terrifying grandeur of Idomeneo’s tragic choruses. Charming Ländler-esque melodies and jaunty rhythms are woven throughout the score, as well as passages of fierce driving energy. There are lively antiphonal choruses that conjure up a Heidelberg fraternity song.

And yet, these individual strengths are ultimately overwhelmed by the stupefying repetitiousness of the action, which forces Schubert to pen endless choral paeans to the Vaterland for the knights, and by the hackneyed nature of the characters’ sentiments. The final act ­reaches a climax of whipped-up agitation, exemplified by the “melodramas” performed by ­Florinda, a Moorish princess illicitly in love with the Christian knight, ­Roland. Melodrama was a popular early nineteenth-century genre, consisting of dramatically spoken text accompanied by music. Schubert wrote many of them; Dietrich Fischer-­Dieskau’s recorded performance of his Abschied von der Erde (“Farewell to the earth”) shows how unbearably moving the form can be. Not here, however. ­Florinda’s are melodramas in the conventional sense of the word: overheated and artificial—emblematic, alas, of the libretto, which no amount of musical skill can counteract.

The opera repertoire is replete with infamously bad libretti, of course—think Il Trovatore—that have nevertheless not torpedoed their scores. Surely this is not because Verdi is a better composer than Schubert (though he may be a better opera composer). The difference lies, perhaps, in the nature of the libretto’s flaws: a shameless lack of ­verisimilitude can be overcome, whereas lack of dramatic interest is a much larger handicap.

Ever since the directorship of Gerard Mortier in the 1990s, the Salzburg Festival has had a sorry predilection for revisionist opera productions—those narcissistic updatings in which a director substitutes his puerile sexual and political obsessions for the clear mandates of the text. Here, however, the festival—to its credit—gave Fierrabras its best shot at success with a traditional production, overseen by Peter Stein. The legendary German director has long since parted ways with the now ossified theatrical avant-garde; today, he declares himself the humble helpmate of playwrights and composers. The German and Austrian musical press detests him for that reason.

For the 2011 Salzburg Festival, Stein mounted a vivid production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Yet his staging here (seen on August 24) was soporific, either dragged down by the fatal Kupelwieser curse or simply failing on its own. The sets, by Ferdinand Wögerbauer, were certainly lovely, creating a silvery medieval world out of life-sized etchings of Gothic and Moorish palaces, like a Gustave Doré print come to life. Charlemagne’s warriors gather in an icy mountain pass with vistas recalling Caspar David Friedrich. But the characters sleepwalk through their interactions. The Moors ambush Charlemagne’s knights in the mountain pass as casually as if they were strolling up to a golf tee; after the capture, both sides stand around listlessly as if waiting for a bus. The only character with abundant energy is the diminutive Dorothea Röschmann as Florinda, who fiercely bristled in her melodramas. Stein has described the ­libretto as “grauenvoll” (dreadful), and reported that the cast tried not to break out in laughter during the first read-through of the text, but his own rewriting of some of the dialogue did not noticeably improve things.

Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt withdrew early on from the project for health reasons; his replacement, the German Ingo Metzmacher, is best known for championing contemporary composers. He proved as sympathetic a Schubert interpreter as one could hope for, however, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a suspense-filled reading of the overture, with its unsettling harmonies, murmuring timpani, and quick changes of mood. Metzmacher’s cheerful dance meters contrasted with the flaccid action on stage. Only the vocal ensemble work at the end of the opera grew ragged under his baton.

Canadian tenor Michael Schade poignantly conveyed Fierrabras’s struggle to suppress his love for Emma. Yet the three Schubert songs he had performed the day before during an impromptu Liederabend provided him more musical drama to work with than the whole of the ­opera. French tenor Benjamin ­Bernheim as Eginhard delivered a beautifully shaped serenade with a pure, sure sound.

It would have been fascinating to know whether the early nineteenth-century Viennese public was nonironic enough in its literary taste to have welcomed Fierrabras’s creaky dramaturgy. Unfortunately, the conditions that inspired the opera’s commission seemed to have petered out before it even reached the stage. The Kärntnertor directors had anticipated a wave of interest in German operas, but Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe, another ­German-language commission, failed at the box office just three weeks ­after Schubert completed Fierrabras in autumn 1823. Meanwhile, Rossini’s Italian operas were taking Vienna by storm. The Kärntnertor managers (minus Josef Kupelwieser, who had recently resigned) were not willing to risk the rejection of a second German opera and shelved plans to produce Fierrabras. They never paid Schubert for his year-long effort in writing the score.

This disappointment was like so many others in Schubert’s tragically short life, but the twenty-six-year-old composer seems to have taken the blow stoically. “I have composed nothing since the opera except a couple of mill-songs,” he wrote to his friend Schober, referring with typical ­casualness to his wrenching song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin. Today, Schubert’s song cycles represent the apogee of his work, but to him, they were a mere appendage to his perpetually dashed aspirations to bring his music to the stage.

Fierrabras was Schubert’s last effort at composing an opera. It disappeared until an 1897 performance in Germany and was rarely heard in the twentieth century. (A 1988 performance by Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe resulted in a worthy recording.) Outgoing Salzburg Festival director Alexander Pereira has said that producing Fierrabras was a gift to himself. He is to be congratulated on his rarefied taste. However disappointing the opera is compared with Schubert’s nonoperatic output, hearing this flawed but heartfelt work was worth a thousand additional Trovatores or Bohèmes, for it transports us into a radically ­different aesthetic world, and fills out our understanding of a precious musical mind.  

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a City Journal contributor.