Friday, 6 March 2020

Weber - Euryanthe (Vienna, 2018)

Carl Maria von Weber - Euryanthe

Theater an der Wien, 2018

Constantin Trinks, Christof Loy, Jacquelyn Wagner, Norman Reinhardt, Theresa Kronthaler, Andrew Foster-Williams, Stefan Cerny, Eva-Maria Neubauer

Naxos - Blu-ray

There are often good reasons why some works remain neglected and rarely performed, but it's at least nice to be able to have the opportunity to hear them and judge for yourself, even if in most cases you have to admit that few are really lost masterpieces. Carl Maria Von Weber's 1823 opera Euryanthe however may genuinely be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Euryanthe is one of those works whose reputation is better known than the work itself, that reputation being that it has some lovely music but is let down by a poor libretto. Considering Weber's importance in the world of German music and his huge influence on Richard Wagner, it's surely a shame that other than Der Freischütz, the composer's operas haven't been given due attention in performance. Christof Loy's production of Euryanthe for the Theater an der Wien however suggests that this is a great work worthy of re-evaluation.

In terms of plot Euryanthe does indeed just appear to adopt another variation on a classic Romantic theme based around challenges against the virtue of innocent women. It's there in Schumann's only opera Genoveva, but the subject can also be seen in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucretia and Cymbeline. Mozart also took an apparently more light-hearted comic angle on the subject in Così fan tutte, but as several recent productions have demonstrated (Teatro Real 2013, Aix 2016), Mozart and Da Ponte's approach is far more subtle, balanced, darker and nuanced than it might seem. Despite the reputation of its libretto and plot, and the relentless darkness of the treatment, Christof Loy successfully shows that there is similar nuance and sophistication worth exploring in Euryanthe.

Like The Rape of Lucretia there's an underlying context of war having a dehumanising impact on men and influencing how they behave towards women in Euryanthe. At the beginning of the opera Count Adolar is returning from war, disillusioned but revived at the thought of returning to his wife Euryanthe. Having only seen the worst of what man is capable, the one thing that can restore his faith in humanity is the assurance of his wife's purity and fidelity. Count Lysiart however is rather more cynical and bets Adolar that he could seduce Euryanthe. Adolar is outraged and ready to duel Lysiart for this insult to his wife's honour, but has such faith in Euryanthe that, with King Ludwig's intervention, he is prepared to accept the bet to prove the point beyond dispute.

So far there's nothing unusual in a subject like that, it's a stirring situation that gives rise to conflicts of passions and moral dilemmas. There is however a complicating factor here in Eglantine, the daughter of a disgraced noble that Adolar has taken into their home, and her being in love with Adolar adds more than just another level of dramatic conflict. The introduction of a kind of ghost story around the untimely death of Adolar's sister Emma, who killed herself after her betrothed Udo died in battle, is another factor that comes into play, a shameful secret that Eglantine plans to use against Euryanthe in collaboration with Lysiart, but it also relates to Emma and Udo both being victims of war as a destructive force.

All this can seem like the plot has a few too many high-flown Romantic sentiments - the opera is subtitled 'A Great Heroic Romantic Opera' - but Christof Loy's approach to this melodrama is as usual to find the real human feeling in the work. Not unexpectedly that can be found with considerable depth in the music of Carl Maria Von Weber. It might fall back now and again on conventional elements of dramatic villainy, ghostly apparitions and wistful musing of innocents, but only in the same way that Mozart also made use of a similar wide range of means to plunge ever deeper into the darkness of Don Giovanni's soul. Weber's music, conducted her by Constantin Trinks, is beautifully aligned to the mood and the drama of Euryanthe and it's not difficult to see how Wagner would develop on this to an epic scale, particularly evident in a similar confrontation between innocence impugned and villainy given credence in Lohengrin.

Loy seizes on the power of such situations and music applies it to characterisation that can be seen to be much more three-dimensional than its reputation would have you believe. The director never lets the characters emote alone or soliloquise to the audience in an indulgent manner, but rather shows them tapping into the deepest human feelings of love, jealousy, lust and betrayal. And if that means having the object of one's affections present when their spirit - and other parts - are being bared, then so be it. Rather like the spirit of Emma, it makes these emotions present and tangible, generating a highly charged atmosphere.

The stage design is appropriate for the context and, rather than relying on typical Der Freischütz-like Romantic locations of woods, glens and dramatic landscapes, Loy keeps the drama confined to an elegant mansion. The cool minimalism of the rooms only serves to heighten and contrast the surface manners of high society with the barely contained lusts and prejudices simmering beneath. It's not so far away from Loy's more recent take on Schreker's similarly heated drama Die ferne Klang, or indeed his stripping of those emotional charges literally stark naked as with his production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane. Andrew Foster Williams is the unfortunate who has to bear all this time, his "wild impulses of glowing desire" out there for the viewer to see, but spared anything too close up. It certainly makes the idea of intended rape more viscerally real and the subsequent teaming up of Lysiart with Eglantine after this is deliriously demented and utterly convincing.

It's the singing too of course that makes this convincing and the principal cast, as well as the chorus, are simply superb. Jacquelyn Wagner has a perfect clean soaring timbre that is perfect for the part of Euryanthe. She's more than just an innocent victim, but the vocal line tells us more than the words alone about her firmness of purpose and her pureness of heart, and Wagner brings out the real human feeling that is scored into the role. Norman Reinhardt shows how Adolar is a prototype Heldentenor, an idealist conflicted between the purity of vision and his response to the baseness of the world.

Theresa Kronthaler and Andrew Foster-Williams bring a chilling edge of menace in roles that are even more villainous and - in this production at least - even more deranged and cruel than Ortrud and Telramund. Looking at the opera this way pointing towards towards Lohengrin, King Ludwig IV is very much a Heinrich der Vogler type of role and it's one that bass Stefan Cerny is not only capable of performing to a Wagnerian level but he also brings some character and personality to make it count within the dramatic development of the plot. Rather than being a forgotten minor work by a respected but neglected composer, Euryanthe turns out to be essential listening for any Wagnerian, a wondrous rediscovery, and Loy's treatment of the work at Theater an der Wien will not disappoint.

The production looks good on the High Definition Blu-ray release from Naxos, although there are some minor niggles. The strong contrasts make whites look a little blown-out, and the image is a little bit shimmery and blurring in movement. Whether that's an authoring issue with the transfer bit-rate I don't know, but it's not too distracting. It doesn't appear that radio mics are used so there's a wider open acoustic theatrical sound here, which means that it also picks up a bit of ambient noise, including creaking floorboards, but the LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes still capture the power and the detail of the performance. The BD is all-region compatible, with German, English, French, Japanese and Korean subtitles. The booklet contains a synopsis and an interview with Christof Loy.

Links: Theater an der Wien