Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Schubert's Fierrabras – Father Knows Best?

Don’t get this disc for Jonas Kaufmann. Yes he’s in it, and yes he’s good, and yes he plays the title character. But don’t get this disc for Jonas Kaufmann.  Fierrabras’ minor role in his own opera is noted by director Claus Guth throughout the production. Fierrabras makes sure Schubert knows he feels about the size of his part, and the quality or at least tone of the music he is given to sing. (Check his non-verbal feedback to the composer in his—one—aria.) Fierrabras is not very happy about having to be so noble. He clearly would rather do away with Eginhard so he could marry Emma himself.

Fierrabras is a beautiful opera, but it has little going for it beyond the pretty tunes. The libretto is dull and confusing, and while pretty, the music is not terribly dramatic. Guth seems to enjoy his projections and blackboards and such. It seems like directorial cheating to use diagrams and charts to clarify the plot/interpretation. Shouldn't we be able to figure it out without them? (On the other hand, the answer here is “no,” so it’s a good thing we have them.) But he still leaves us some images to ponder.

Schubert himself appears in this production, and the three principal male characters are portrayed as aspects of his personality. Schubert had a life-long (although his life was short) conflict with his father. His dad encouraged both his musical and academic studies, but wanted Schubert to follow him into teaching school. Schubert, however, wanted to devote his life to music. (Thank God for us, he did!) He spent his life craving paternal approval, but was unwilling to become a school teacher in order to gain that approval.  

Eginhard, King Karl, Fierrabras, Schubert, and Roland.

So, Guth takes Schubert’s conflicts with his father as a theme for his interpretation. The set pieces (piano, chairs, cuckoo clock, etc.) are all over-sized,  emphasizing the child aspect of Schubert. He has complicated relationships with the two fathers in the opera, and as mentioned before, Roland, Eginhard, and Fierrabras are all presented as his doubles. Schubert is composing the opera as we watch and he continues to check in with the dads—particularly with King Karl—to see if they approve. 

Schubert is frequently hurrying to hand a singer his or her music just in time to be sung. One senses that he is trying very hard to fix this little opera, but is not succeeding. It’s as if he might reconcile with his dad if only he could roll out a convincing evening of musical drama. I am not sure that focusing on Schubert’s father issues enhances the understanding of this opera, though it doesn't really detract, and it does give one something to think about while the pretty music rolls by. Guth moves the piano (which is Schubert's refuge; he often hides under it or behind one of the legs)  and clock about for each act. I am still trying to figure out the significance of partially suspending the piano for one act. Maybe Guth is representing the precariousness of Schubert's life, working towards his own goals while still trying to please his dad. 

Here is a lovely duet for Eginhard and Emma. They are really good sight-readers!

So, don’t get this disc for JK, or maybe I should say, don’t get it just for JK. (In fact, it might be better to just rent or borrow it.) The music is lovely and there is fine singing here, especially from JK, Christoph Strehl, Michael Volle (a most under-appreciated baritone, in my opinion!), and László Polgár. Franz Welser-Möst is firmly and lyrically in control of the Zurich Opera chorus and orchestra, and all things musical. Others contribute well, too; I just don’t feel like typing/inserting any more diacritical marks or umlauts! (Insert Earworm’s diacritical rant here.) Oh, and did I mention the lovely music?

Here are some other clips from this performance:

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