Euryanthe at Oper Frankfurt: Brilliant Staging Redeems an Awkward Scenario
By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!
Euryanthe, Carl Maria von Weber’s final opera, premiered in 1823, is full of glorious music sabotaged by a barely coherent libretto. This grand romantic opera is based on a medieval tale of love and treachery, but Helmina von Chézy saddled the composer with a clunky melodrama weighted with impossible plot twists and supernatural elements. (Her play Rosamunde, for which Schubert wrote incidental music, was apparently no more successful, as the text has been lost) Johannes Erath, master of arresting stage pictures, turned it into a glitzy cabaret cum chess game, with surprising success.
The plot turns on the integrity of the title character, betrothed to Count Adolar, whose jealous frenemy Count Lysiart, in a contrivance reminiscent of Cosi fan tutte or Les liaisons dangereuses, bets title and possessions that he can sway Euryanthe’s loyalty. Lysiart’s scheme is abetted by Euryanthe’s treacherous friend Eglantine (clearly a model for Wagner’s Ortrud) who is in love with Adolar herself. When she persuades Euryanthe to reveal Adolar’s darkest secret, that his sister poisoned herself, Adolar believes Euryanthe untrue, though he changes his mind several times. There’s an unholy alliance between Lysiart and Eglantine, a purloined poison ring, banishment and a snake in the forest, and a near-rescue by the king who witnessed the wager. After much anguish, confusion, and misdirected suspicion, Euryanthe’s reputation is cleared, but neither she nor Eglantine survive.
Erath manages the neat trick of distrusting his material while allowing his artists to treat their roles with great seriousness. With Heike Scheele’s arresting, mutable sets, Gesine Völlm’s sumptuous and imaginative costumes, and Joachim Klein’s transformative lighting, Erath creates stage pictures that underline the contrast between light and dark, good and evil, Euryanthe/Aldovar and Eglantine/Lysiart. Stage pictures combine curious mash-ups: the opening scene is a crumbling 19th-century music hall that fills with revelers dressed for 1950s Las Vegas, waltzing across the checkerboard floor. Then things get really strange, as the proscenium breaks open and rotates to reveal a grotto, and succubi and horse-like creatures come out of the woodwork or climb over the bar. Eglantine, dressed in dark green, (echoing Ortrud’s costume in Erath’s recent Lohengrin in Oslo) attempts to distract Adolar from his solitary chess game. Adam and Eve in sparkly pasties, another Eve holding a sequined apple, and a life-size chess game played by the men’s chorus as they sing the glorious Act III hunting chorus are only a few of the more memorable snapshots. The penultimate tableau is the expired Euryanthe, held in the tuxedoed arms of male choristers in a pose invoking Fuseli’s The Nightmare, perhaps the emblematic surreal image in the Romantic era.
It would be easy for such flamboyant gestures to go very wrong, but with a story this dramatically incoherent, distractions were welcome. Erath may wink at the story, but his vision vividly evokes early 19th century aesthetic and social conventions. Meanwhile, the principals sing and act their hearts out, making the emotions real in spite of eye-rolling plot developments. The music is stirring and glorious; it’s easy to hear von Weber’s influence on Wagner, who worked as a copyist for the older composer.
Euryanthe was Erika Sunnegårdh, who enjoyed a star-is-born Met debut jumping in for Karita Mattila in Fidelio in 2006. Since then she has worked steadily throughout Europe in roles like Turandot, Leonora, and Tosca. Her large voice has always been a bit untameable: clear and sweet through most of her range, it has remarkable penetrating power but above the staff it tends to go a bit wild. But her performance of the grueling part was satisfying and dramatically credible, a tall order here.
Heidi Melton, as the scheming Eglantine, delivered the most vocal glamor of the evening. Her large, easily produced soprano has carrying power from bottom to top, though the highest notes still want more freedom. Melton’s expressive eyes are ideal to convey her devious character.
In his Oper Frankfurt debut, the busy American tenor Eric Cutler made a very strong vocal and stage impression as Adolar; if he tired at times, blame von Weber. British bass-baritone James Rutherford, winner of the first Seattle Wagner Competition in 2006, was a vocally strong and suavely menacing Lysiart. As Emma, whose suicide set the plot in motion, Opera Studio member soprano Katarina Ruckgraber showed great promise–file that name for future reference.
In his Frankfurt debut, Roland Kluttig, music director at Coburg, conducted the flamboyant score with verve and precision, notwithstanding some intonation problems in the violins and winds.
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first staged production of Euryanthe by a MainStage company in over a century (it was performed at Bard Summerstage in 2014). It’s hard to imagine a better realization of this problematic but worthy score—go if you possibly can, because you may not get the chance for another century.
Date posted: April 12, 2015