Schubert's Fierrabras. Another Unjustly Neglected Singspiel
There is so much wonderful music in Fierrabras, listening to it one can only wonder why it is seldom, if ever heard.
Sadly, this may be one of the classic cases of a libretto doing in a musical composition of exquisite beauty. I myself have not a single problem with the libretto being a little far-reaching. It is often dismissed as being melodramatic, but personally I’ve never had a problem with operas being melodramatic for that is exactly what they’re supposed to be.
Having said that, let me try to relay Fierrabras’s plot, which exposes a veritable hotbed of ideas covering just about everything: religion, war, strife, freedom, imprisonment, enemy battles, betrayal, loyalty and love all taking place in the time and court of King Charlemagne. Florinda, daughter of the Moor Prince Boland is in love with Roland. Boland’s son, Fierrabras is in love with Charlemagne’s daughter, Emma. Emma, in turn, has the hots for the tenor, er, I mean Eginhard (well, he IS a tenor!).
There is war between the Franks and the Moors, the Franks win and Roland takes Fierrabras as his prisoner. Meanwhile, the Moors successfully capture Eginhad and Roland, who are then condemned to death. Florinda plots to free the Frankish prisoners, but only Eginhard (whom Emma is in love with) makes it out. Fierrabras returns with reinforcements and they free their comrades. Charlemagne and Boland declare peace and everyone pairs off, save Fierrabras, who, having lost Emma, remains alone.
There are two recordings I know of, both taken from live performances. The first, available on Myoto is a concert performance with the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in the role Eginhard, and exquisitely conducted by Hans Müller-Kray. I know little about the rest of the cast, but it is, for the most part, expertly sung and, considering it’s being live and recorded in the 50’s, has mostly excellent sound.
The other is taken from a glorious live performance (an actual staging) with Abbado conducting the Schoenberg Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. With the exception of Wunderlich, the cast, in my opinion, could not be improved upon: Josef Protschka, Karita Mattila, Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson, Robert Gambill, Robert Holl with some outstanding lesser known singers in smaller roles. Like Müller-Kray, Abbado wants for nothing in expressivity, nuance and paying attention to details. Neither recording includes the dialogue.
Fierrabras’s score posseses some thrilling, over-the-top arias such as “Die Brust, Gebeugt Von Sorgen.” In the Abbado recording this is sung by Cheryl Studer with such rapt, breathlessness that its urgency jumps out of the speakers, taking one by surprise. As remarkable as the melodic line is, Schubert’s orchestrations here and everywhere throughout the opera could serve as a textbook of operatic orchestral writing with spectacular integrations of vocal underscoring/voice doubling as well as independent movement and almost visual imagery created through his instrumentation. It’s quite amazing stuff.
For my money, even more wonderful than the arias are the numerous ensembles and choruses, such as the duet “O Mog' Auf Froher Hoffnung Schwingen” or the ensemble and chorus “Der Landestochter Fromme Pflichten” each breathtaking in its beauty. In the latter Schubert takes a melody, almost folk like in its simplicity, then weaves it into an orchestral tapestry of almost bucolic bliss, strongly recalling Beethoven. Indeed, I believe much of the music of Fierrabras shows Beethoven’s influence on Schubert – not a bad thing, in my opinion. (My opinion also is that Schubert and Beethoven should have given us a lot more opera than they did.)
Another gorgeous duet, “Selbst An Des Grabes Rande” has an infectious waltz quality which Studer and Hampson perfectly capture with an almost Viennese lilt – then the men’s chorus enters and the whole affair will almost make
you forget The Merry Widow!
While some may say Fierrabras isn’t inspired I’ll disagree strongly. It is a nearly perfect example of Singspiel which I wish would have more of a presence in today’s world of opera.