After a dozen false starts and a decade of largely unnoticed labour, Franz Schubert stood poised on the verge of a professional breakthrough. Since early adolescence when he had first attended a performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, opera had held the brilliant 26-year old Viennese master of German lied in a perpetual state of enchantment. Yet despite repeated attempts to penetrate the form — an almost obsessive undertaking on Schubert’s part — commercial success in the world of music theatre had eluded him.
Then at long last in 1823 came a commission. Banking on a continued surge of interest in German-language opera, the Habsburg royal house, the Kärntnertor, ordered a new piece. General Manager Joseph Kupelwieser, armed with more enthusiasm than skill, set to work on a libretto, an exotic tale of love vs. honour, Franks vs. Moors. Schubert’s acute sense of romanticism was a perfect fit, lack of stage experience notwithstanding. The collaboration was doomed. Work on Fierabras wore on for over a year, hopelessly entangled in a web of court censorship and bureaucracy, only to be abruptly terminated by management when Rossini came to Vienna and promptly saw and conquered. No matter how diligently Schubert had struggled to repackage it, singspiel instantly fell out of fashion. Kupelwieser resigned. Schubert died soon after, tragically and unpaid, never having seen his last best hope for operatic fame and fortune produced.
Mounting a brave assault on Schubert’s colossal 3½ hour opus, Voicebox: Opera in Concert landed a decidedly condensed Fierabras on the St. Lawrence Centre’s compact Jane Mallett Theatre stage, remarkably tempestuous and brawny despite an abundance of timing cuts. Production values may have been understandably in short supply last Sunday but the determination of Toronto’s pioneering band of rare opera champions to preserve the spirit of Schubert’s infrequently performed epic was very much in evidence.
Schubert’s opera music, stage centre in Voicebox’s theatrically spare presentation, differs greatly from that of his celebrated art songs. In Fierabras, the restless young composer unleashes the orchestra, unrestrained by the rather more confidential expressions of emotion showcased in his lieder. Colour and tone are boldly elaborated, key signatures unexpectedly shifted. The power of the music tells a sweeping story.
The courts of Charlemagne — King Karl to German-speakers — and Moorish leader Boland may well have bustled and blundered their way through the action per Kupelwieser’s instructions. Frankish princess Emma, contemptible Christian knight Eginhard, noble Arab warrior Fierabras may all have failed to interact in the author’s woefully undeveloped love triangle. But ultimately, amid all the furious comings and goings of essentially dimensionless characters, no one in the near capacity audience quite rightly seemed to care.
Libretto, universally condemned by commentators past and present as irretrievably bungled, was simply overwhelmed in Opera in Concert’s intense, concentrated presentation. Deftly accompanied by chorus and musicians, a zealous band of undaunted singer actors either absorbed or deflected a goodly portion of the frequently egregious text.
Conducting a crisp 10-player troupe assembled on stage — vivid strings, flute and horn intermingled with deliciously reedy oboe, bassoon, and clarinet all gathered under the Aradia Ensemble banner — music director Kevin Mallon led with great tact and understanding, infinitely solicitous in matters of vocal performance. Schubert is unshakeable in his insistence on strongly articulated lines of melody and parlando, challenging when singers must compete with the simultaneous push and pull of intricately figured instrumental themes. Under Mallon’s firm, controlled management, music and singing met in a lush, fertile landscape. Downsized from grand opera to more humble proportions, this Fierabras pulsed with irrepressible energy.
Exchanging Schubert’s taut, symphonic-flavoured overture for an infinitely more subdued octet, Mallon and company opened the proceedings on a decidedly intimate note, trading tension and drama for understatement. Startling as the revision was, the unexpected refocusing from macro to close-up did have the effect, serendipitous or intended, of instantly centering our expectations in the realm of chamber performance. Fierabras *Abridged* felt quite at home in its modest surroundings.
Singing the title role, tenor Mathew Dalen delivered a blistering Moor, all smouldering looks and angry young man, top notes exploding like fireworks, sparkling and incandescent. Was quälst du mich, o Mißgeschick? (“O misfortune, why do you torment me?”), Fierabras cries, battling to suppress his passion for forbidden Frankish princess Emma. Dalen dazzled, tearing into Schubert’s aria with ferocious abandon, his bright, crystalline tone ringing through the semi-darkness.
Soprano Amy Moodie appeared as Emma. Joined by chorus and strutting, ever-richly resonant bass-baritone Alexander Dobson as King Karl, the recent U of T Faculty of Music graduate gave forceful impetus to one of Fierabras’ most memorable ensembles, Der Landestöchter fromme Pflichten (“The solemn duty of daughters of the land”). A moment of some considerable beauty.
Seasoned tenor Lawrence Wiliford sang a musically delightful Eginhard, partnering with Moodie on an utterly gorgeous rendition of Der Abend sinkt auf stiller Flur (“The evening falls on the silent field”). What began as a tender cavatina gently morphed into a radiant love duet in flawless Mozartian fashion. Schubert idolized his fellow countryman from Salzburg. Wiliford quite clearly shares Schubert’s fondness for melody made magical.
Singing with great commitment and solid actorly instincts, baritone Evan Korbut was Eginhard’s knightly companion, Roland. Baritone Justin Welsh contributed a commanding Boland, haughty Caliph of Spain.
Soprano Jocelyn Fralick was Florinda, Boland’s daughter, something of an analogous figure to her Frankish counterpart, a simpler, less conflicted character than Princess Emma. Channeling her irresistibly liquid phrasing, Fralick, joined by budding mezzo-soprano soloist Meghan Symon in the role of courtly companion, delivered a finely honed rendition of arguably the shiniest duet on offer in an opera brimming with ensembles, Weit über Glanz und Erdenschimmer (“Far above the earth’s gleam“). Luscious and languid, the all too brief selection warmed the heart, an obvious precursor to Leo Delibes’ iconic Dôme épais le jasmin.
Fierabras is an opera of plenty. The wide variety of vocal instruments, lyric to spinto, on display in Voicebox’s latest offering leant a marked air of community to the project. The sense of diverse, keenly committed artists, both well known and emerging, banded together in common purpose was palpable. Schubert’s music is infinitely accepting, a celebration of the human voice in all its many dimensions and hues. To experience this production was to be part of something inspiring.
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Above: Franz Schubert by Joseph Kriehuber, 1846