Prom 31: Euryanthe Rescued (From the Desert)

Euryanthe – Grand Romantic Opera in three acts

Euryanthe – Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Eglantine – Lauren Flanigan (soprano)
Adolar – John Daszak (tenor)
Lysiart – Pavlo Hunka (bass-baritone)
King Louis VI – Clive Bayley (bass)
Rudolf – Nicholas Sharratt (tenor)
Bertha – Rebecca von Lipinski (soprano)

The Glyndebourne Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Posterity has deemed that the exhilarating overture to Euryanthe is a fairly regular concert-opener. When a Weber opera is mounted or recorded, it’s usually Der Freischütz. Euryanthe, indeed, has only been recorded complete once to date. There is a very strong case that Mark Elder and his Glyndebourne cast should now make the second.

Writing as someone who is often satisfied with just the overture to most operas, I haven’t been mounting a vigil to hear what follows Weber’s to Euryanthe – folly on my part for it’s a damn good opera, all three hours of it. A long evening was made longer by an extra interval, which I don’t think helped the work’s somewhat rambling processes – thinking about last trains and the like does influence one’s feelings towards a piece that is inconsistent. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that it has several tentacles – some go back, some forward, while others pad out a very simple, hackneyed and implausible storyline … true of many operas.

Euryanthe’s tentacles – 1823 vintage, post-Freischütz, Oberon to come – points to Wagner (a Weber admirer), suggests Schumann’s pathos, rubs shoulders with Berlioz, looks back (like Berlioz did) to Gluck and, despite the closed-border German art-form that Weber was supposedly intent on writing, more than nods at Rossini (all the rage at the time) and has portents of Verdi. Weber’s use of the orchestra is also forward-looking; it is given a much greater involvement – no mere accompaniment but an integral part of the drama.

This “semi-staged” performance (by Susannah Waters) of what looks to have been, from the programme’s pictures, a superb Glyndebourne production arrived hot-foot from there with the luxury of being lived through – although a raked platform above the orchestra, allowing movement and gestures from the non-costumed singers, is pretty “semi”! Anticipations of the serpent’s appearance in Act 3 were cruelly dashed – all Adolar did was to exit stage right to slay it! Anyway, he’s a bit of twit – this is the bloke that drags poor old Euryanthe, perfect in every way, out to solitude to kill her for giving a secret away! If John Daszak was trying to portray Adolar as a good-but-dim knight, he did well – from the singing angle he was strained in his upper register and high notes lacked heroic ring.

The plot should be mentioned – Adolar and Euryanthe are (ghastly term) an item. Despite him leaving her far from home they are reunited and marry. Lysiart has designs on Euryanthe and attempts to discredit her; he has a wager with Adolar that he can do so. He fails … until he meets the duplicitous Eglantine – to whom Euryanthe has betrayed the secret, the basis for Adolar producing a single-ticket to ’The Desert’! Eventually Lysiart stabs his partner-in-crime and is sentenced to death only to be pardoned by Adolar. Then it’s Happy Ever After. There’s a bit more to it, but you get the gist. The chorus – the wholly excellent Glyndebourne Chorus singing from memory – masquerades as Ladies, Knights, Peasants, Courtiers, Huntsmen … and more Peasants.

The serious aspect of Euryanthe is its place in opera’s development, Weber’s attempt to make the form continuous and enveloping. Even the prommers couldn’t applaud between numbers! But then there wasn’t many of them, or seated punters. A shame! Queues form for Kissin and Rattle but not for poor old Euryanthe.

Folklore has determined that the devil gets the best tunes; Weber leaves that wrinkle in place. Adolar is given ballad-like settings, quiet nice, but nothing really memorable. The scheming Lysiart has much more interesting music, perhaps the reason Pavlo Hunka invested more character into him than Daszak did to Adolar. Lauren Flanigan was marvellous as the ’viper underneath the rose’, slightly frayed vocally, but riveting in her ’mad scenes’ (not in a Bellini/Donizetti sense) which she gave with unstinting venom. Anne Schwanewilms was radiant as Euryanthe, poised, ethereal and pure.

The OAE’s semitone-lower period instruments came into their own because Weber uses them with such imagination and very specifically. The pungent woodwinds were especially fine – from the pearly-toned recorder-like flutes to the high bassoon. Horn fluffs in the overture were compensated for later by some bracing hunting calls. The strings worked hard, sustained unanimity, expressive fire and forlorn intimacies – is there not though a case for introducing vibrato as an ornament to perk things up? Continual non-vibrato engenders austerity of means; there were times when the most Romantic moments would have benefited from a change of colour.

Musically, Weber is at his most far-reaching in depicting the villains and in producing virtuous music for the eponymous heroine. Deeply felt emotions (both good and evil) and nature- and spirit-related scenes are dealt equally good hands. It’s the crowd-scenes, the cardboard tableaux and over-long finales that are the weakness both musically and dramatically. Yet there’s enough inspired, original and influential music here to reveal the “near-miss masterpiece” that John Warrack suggests Euryanthe to be. Certainly Mark Elder’s devotion to it, the issue of vibrato aside, made Euryanthe worth the trouble of resurrecting; his conducting throughout was masterly both to instrumental detail and overall pacing, and his spacious tempi, in something like Euryanthe’s Act 3 ’Cavatina’, seemed wonderfully inauthentic.

All in all, this Prom was a triumph and a very rewarding evening.

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