Alfonso und Estrella


Luba Orgonasova (Estrella), Birgit Heindler (A maiden), Endrik Wottrich (Alfonso), Georg Nigl (A young man), Olaf Bär (Mauregato), Thomas Hampson (Froila), Carlos Silva (Captain of the Guard), Alfred Muff (Adolfo)

Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Chamber Orchestra of Europe c. Nikolaus Harnoncourt p. Jürgen Flimm d. Erich Wonder & Florence von Gerkan, video director Brian Large 

Naxos 2.110260 (140 minutes)

Live recording 1997 


Devotees of Schubert’s luckless operas are in for a treat with this DVD issue of a 1997 staging of Alfonso und Estrella (1821), performed at the Theater an der Wien to commemorate the bicentennial of Schubert’s birth. Many commentators regard this as his finest stage work, though Schubert never heard or saw it. Liszt was responsible for the premiere at Weimar in 1854, and though he attempted to interest a French publisher in it, was not a committed advocate, citing the problem libretto by Franz von Schober, a poet and lifelong friend of Schubert, whose An die Musik has assured his immortality. Ironically, Schubert alienated Weber, who was greatly interested in this score, by criticizing his Euryanthe (1823), another work where delectable music is buried by an inept libretto. Various attempts have been made in the twentieth century to make Alfonso live on stage, including a 1950’s version setting bits of the music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose plot is echoed here. 


Jürgen Flimm’s production is straightforward, slightly deconstructed, yet detailed and perceptive in evolving relationships between characters and strengthening narrative sense, helping out librettist and composer. Its abiding strength is that it takes its cues from the highly atmospheric music, and does not attempt to mask the haphazard and leisurely narrative with hyperactivity. The video direction, by Brian Large, supports this expertly and the beautiful designs register clearly.  


It is hard to imagine better musical presentation – Harnoncourt, at the helm of his familiar forces is the presiding genius of this tightly wrought performance. The precision, transparency and lyric phrasing are beyond reproach. The cast is uniformly strong, with Thomas Hampson producing burnished tone and phrasing of such ease, it seems a shame he has progressed to heavier repertoire. As the opposing monarch, Olaf Bär displays honeyed tone and his customary attention to text. Endrik Wottrich – a willowy romantic figure still -  before forays into Wagner and body-building, fields an appealing dark tenor timbre and phrases most musically, as does Luba Orgonasova, who relishes the occasional Rossinian vocal moment, and produces creamy tone. Alfred Muff makes the most of his villainous role, a difficulty one, as Schubert’s music is rather genteel. In the booklet, it states that Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made cuts within several numbers to tighten the dramatic structure, which is sensitively done. Sample the opening of the second act with the harp inflected Song of the Cloud maiden, a bewitching invention, later adapted by Schubert for Täuschung from Winterreise, sung by Hampson with honeyed legato, to whet your appetite. 


© Julian Grant 2009  



Juliane Banse (Emma), Twyla Robinson (Florinda), Irène Friedli (Maragond), Christoph Strehl (Einhard), Jonas Kaufmann (Fierrabras), Michael Volle (Roland), Günther Groissböck (Boland), László Polgár (König Karl), Ruben Drole (Brutamonte), Wolfgang Beuschel (Schubert)

Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürichc. Franz Welser-Möst, p. Gudrun Hartmann d. Christian Schmidt, video director Thomas Grimm. 

EMI Classics 5 00969 9 2. 2 DVD (171 minutes) 


The task: to make viable a flawed opera, with its subject matter having little connection to an early 21st century audience. Gudrun Hartmann's production puts it inside the composer's head, and has a Schubert (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Hopkins) act as master of ceremonies in his own creation. Has Schubert created the piece to elicit approval from his father? - doubly personified by the inflexible figures of Karl and Boland, the Frankish and Moorish kings. The three young male leads are Schubert doppelgänger, and the whole is set in a early nineteenth century Beidermeyer drawing room complete with grand piano (which moves around at Pountney-ish angles throughout the evening). It is like a domestic musik-abend, with a touch (but maybe not enough) of E.T.A Hoffmann about it.  Schubert introduces the players, blindfold from the sides of the stage, and sends them on their way, prompting their dialogue and arming them with sheet music, so they sing part of the time from copies. It's an intriguing concept, and it could just work, except that the piece needs more visual contrast throughout a long evening and somehow, more gung-ho early romanticism in its approach. The society from whence Schubert sprung was doubtless paternalistic and repressive, but maybe the act of writing chivalric operas in this period functioned as escapism, in which case, in this production, one feels the need of a more decisive coup de theatre along the way. By the end of the evening the device of Schubert, the fat controller, becomes annoying: he is a spectre at his own feast, undermining what little dramatic pacing his creation has. 


Franz Welser-Möst and his Zürich forces make the most of some arresting music, which contains surprising harmonic shifts and imaginative Weberish orchestration, and their way with some attractively lyrical portions is nuanced and beguiling, but even the most rabid Schubertian cannot pretend that the lyricism on offer here gets to the heart of the dramatic or emotional matter in the way that Schubert songs do, not that there is much heart of the matter to get to in this cardboard chivalric caper. It is very remote subject matter indeed; lots of knightly posturing, and Schubert's pacing vitiates much of the energy. Melodically there is nothing very memorable, and Schubert is unable to place his lyrical moments convincingly. The end of the second act is interesting, with the feisty Florinda reporting on an offstage battle by means of an agitated spoken melodrama (much in vogue in early German romantic opera). It is surprising and has (at last) some dramatic voltage, but coming at the end of an act one is cheated of any sort of vocal climax. Beethoven and Weber's use of spoken word accompanied by music are so much more dramatically placed in Fidelio and Der Freischütz.  At this point in this performance the thought occurs that the two female leads should have been cast the other way around - Twyla Robinson's Florinda has attractive but shallow tone, but is overstretched and inaudible in the dramatic moments, and Juliane Banse's passive drip Emma (not her fault, but Schubert's) is sung with rich alluring tone which is decidedly unwieldy in Schubert's intricate and surprising forays into the upper reaches. Vocal honours go to Christoph Strehl as conflicted suitor Eginhard, who has much of the most lyrical music. He is the one male character who is a bit of a softie. Michael Volle makes much of little as Roland, but all the male characters are so upright and well meaning that you just want to slap them. Jonas Kaufman shows real star quality as Fierrabras and sings his one aria in a lustrous baritonal tenor, but one wonders why the opera is not called Eginhard - or Roland -  the title character has so little to do. In the finale this is made explicit in the production: Schubert manically distributes music to the cast in the grand finale and repeatedly misses out Fierrabras, who has to make do with sharing copies with less exalted characters. It is a good joke, and it shows him as an outsider,yes, but it fatally exposes the opera, for all its occasional felicities and moments of interest, as misshapen. This is a thought-provoking version, but a bit of a long haul.


© Julian Grant 2007