Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fierrabras: Say Goodnight, Franz.

Schubert's Fierrabras has long been poked fun at, considered musically uninteresting, unstageable and given every other imaginable excuse for rarely being produced. Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive the new DVD set starring Jonas Kaufmann. I can honestly say rarely have I been more let down by a production. Musically, it is terrific, but what I had to endure watching was dull, insipid and so over-directed that I decided then and there I may never be able to watch this again. Claus Guth's production occurs entirely in a pink-striped drawing room surrounded by 30+ doors, the only scenery, an oversized piano, the dimensions of which are about 15 feet high with the lid open, and which occupies half of the stage. At the piano we see a chubby, diminutive actor miming Schubert, seated in a 4 foot tall high chair, working on (presumably) the score. Great. Schubert's Clone (who looks like James Levine in a a bad Jackie Mason imitation) seems to have been directed throughout to look "nervous" - his mouth, more often than not, opened in the manner of an inflatable sex doll. Annoying is putting it mildly.

Dialogue is taken from other characters and given to him, allowing us to hear him shrieking each and every syllable. His major big action seems to be running about the stage, handing singers freshly written music and, before they run out of notes, posing their limbs, heads, etc. into gestures he finds heroic or tragic. The opera has been reduced to a single concept: Schubert staging this misguided pageant in the home of a patron, the characters garbed in the formal wear of the day. Schubert, identifying himself with all three of the heroes means, of course, Roland, Eginhard and Fierrabras are all costumed identically to the composer, right down to his little spectacles. When the four are grouped together, all I could think, "early 19th century boyband."

For the second act, the piano has been to one corner and, of course, tipped over. The men now sport breastplates and wield shields that look like miniature evergreens. At the French front, we see Schubert running about the stage, opening doors to reveal the soldiers; men in suits, and wearing either a Fez or some sort of tiny helmet. To rally his troops, Eginhard pulls out a child's toy horn and blows. The moment is not cute nor is it heroic.

Whenever a scene ends and the stage empties, Schubert wanders the width of it, open-mouthed (I swear I saw drool pooling in close ups) more and more bemused and confused than the last time. It's actually ugly and difficult to watch.

Fierrabras' glorious finale is ruined as we spy a prone Schubert atop of piano, feverishly completing the score, and racing to hand copies of it (he did his own copying?) to the chorus and soloists, then arrange them into concert formation as they sight read it, never taking their eyes from the music in their hands.

I can't begin to describe how angry I got watching this. Musically, Fierrabras remains the treasure trove of gorgeous melodies, solos, ensembles, choruses, military music, etc. that I fell in love with years ago, but I felt this a missed opportunity to surprise those who felt Schubert's only worth is to be found in his songs or symphonies. Schubert's symphonic style actually works brilliantly in the work's extended pieces, where solo moves into ensemble with consummate craftsmanship. the aria cum duet for Eginhard and Emma "Der Abend Sinkt Auf Stiller Flur" which morphs from an aria into a duet for Eginhard and Emma, is simply one the most beautiful things Schubert ever wrote.

I'm simply too exhausted . . . and angry from the watching this to go on about the singing other than to say, from top-to-bottom, it is well cast, everyone seguing from dialogue through song splendidly, notably soprano Twyla Robinson's in the most exciting performance of the evening. Kaufmann is predictably excellent (though it is a rather short role) Juliane Banse sounds dark and wild as Emma (reminding me of Mattila in the role some 15-20 years ago) and Laszlo Polgar shows he still has it all in spades. Franz Welser-Most has the Zurich forces working magic and the score really makes a strong case for the opera. If only the staging did.

What should have looked like this:

Instead looks like this:

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