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Schubert: Fierrabras

DVD Button Kleiter, Röschmann, Chappuis; Schade, Bernheim, Werba, Zeppenfeld, Kalman. Konzertvereinigung, Wienerstaatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Metzmacher. Production: Stein. Unitel Classica 730804 (Blu-Ray), 164 mins. (opera), 10 mins. (bonus), subtitled

Recordings Fierrabras Cover 1215

THE ROSSINI CULT IN VIENNA in the 1820s completely eclipsed Singspiel works in German by Weber and Schubert, and kept the latter’s Fierrabras off the stage in his lifetime. No one today would dismiss Fierrabras for not being more like Rossini. But we might wish it were more like Schubert. Here the composer rarely taps the introspective mastery that distinguishes his best songs, instead employing a Weber-like style (with some echoes of Fidelio) in stereotypical formats like sewing/spinning scenes (plural) for soprano and female chorus, several military marches, a suitor’s serenade, a confessional duet about lost love. Despite refinements and flashes of originality, Schubert is hamstrung by a faulty libretto and his manner is tentative, suggesting incidental music. 

Peter Stein’s modest, black-and-white production (from Salzburg in 2014) is free of post-9/11 references that some directors might be tempted to superimpose on this minidrama of rapprochement following an eighth-century battle between Franks and Goths. Stein also avoids the strained cleverness and surreal touches that marked Klaus Guth’s Fierrabras at Zurich Opera in 2007. There, amid furniture twice their size, the tenors playing Eginhard and Fierrabras were costumed and coiffed to look like Schubert himself, while a pudgier, mute version of the composer was constantly visible, intervening or suffering with the characters. Instead, Stein accommodates the flimsy storybook quality of the tale, never challenging its naïve assumptions, its view of war as a misunderstanding that a bit of honesty can resolve.

Mirroring the score’s minimal cultural flavoring, the sets (designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer) and costumes (Annamaria Heinreich) rely on binary color coding and simple contrasting details for the opposing Christian and Islamic kingdoms. The director’s focus on one prevailing emotional state per character is well served by the video direction’s insistent close-ups, and above all by the visual expressiveness of the singers.

Earlier productions have boasted names such as Wunderlich, Mattila, Hampson and Kaufmann. The two sopranos in this Salzburg cast, Julia Kleiter (as Charlemagne’s daughter Emma) and Dorothea Röschmann (the Moorish princess Florinda), are just about in that league. The sopranos embody an ideal contrast in timbre to emphasize both the different tessituras of their roles and their characters’ cultural identities.

The men, while singing with sensitivity, are a little light in vocal profile. Baritone Markus Werba stands out as an intrepid Roland with undeniable stage presence and vitality. Benjamin Bernheim lends credibility to the tenor role of Eginhard, and bass Georg Zeppenfeld is humane and avuncular as Karl (Charlemagne), while Michael Schade almost overplays the mercurial noble savage Fierrabras.

Conductor Ingo Metzmacher, unlike Abbado and Welser-Möst on previous recordings, does not particularly savor the lyrical elements in the score. But his dynamism is welcome, and he clearly appreciates Schubert’s subtle orchestral coloring. —David J. Baker

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