Schubert / Alfonso und Estrella (2)

(Part one of this review, including a summary of the story, is here.)

Listening to this was a strange experience. I got absorbed in it, but I’m not sure it is something I would necessarily return to over and over again.

The orchestral music is recognizably Schubert’s, and it’s often very fun. Here is the introduction. This is a live recording from Berlin in 2005, which I have because . . .well, the audio clips further along will probably make it obvious why. Anyhow. There is something about the way the thing moves that made me think of this recording of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, but I think this is because Harnoncourt is conducting in both cases. Or possibly I am imagining it.

Schubert was an early nineteenth-century composer and this is recognizably an early nineteenth-century opera. This opera is on the Romantic side of the Great Continuo Divide. The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra, not just a harpsichord or lute. There is a chorus, and it is the type of chorus that I could really do with less of. They resemble choruses in Donizetti operas: they are either excited enough to be there that one becomes a little suspicious or they are providing superfluous commentary or both.

This opera is also a little short on ladies. There is a pandemonium of baritones, however, which is fine if you like that kind of thing. And some of them sound very nice. Here, beginning at 2.13, is Troila’s “Sei mir gegrüsst, o Sonne!” / “Be greeted by me, o sun!” (Did I ever claim to be an idiomatic translator of German? No, I did not.) Here is another example, from Act III. The track begins with the orchestral introduction, then two soloists from the chorus futz around a little, and then at 3.07 the action begins. This is Estrella and Brian, and Estrella is giving Brian the spurn. The chorus piles on as they are wont to do. Then Alfonso turns up.

Anyway. The point is that this is an enjoyable listen. This is an opera that has a lot of nice little moments in it. At the same time, my impression when I’d heard the whole thing was one of lightness. Not lightness as in delicacy, but lightness as in it doesn’t hit as hard as it might given how good a composer Schubert is. Many of the big dramatic moments are over before you expect them to be over, and the arias sometimes feel underdeveloped, as if there were more in the music that might be unpacked but hasn’t been. Certain duets, too, have a peculiar lack of dramatic tension or urgency. Some of this is evident in this scene, from Act II, when Alfonso and Estrella first meet in the woods.

Here is Alfonso and Estrella’s first meeting and the rest of the scene with Estrella’s subsequent aria.

Again, this is far from awful. I enjoyed listening to it. And the singers in this performance are definitely making the most of the material. But I’m not sure that it’s opera for the ages.

Part of this is Schober’s fault. At times it seems as if Schubert is being frogmarched forward by the libretto, and the music doesn’t develop as interestingly as it otherwise might because it doesn’t have time. As a result, the music doesn’t fill in what the libretto itself lacks in terms of characterization or emotional subtlety.

What I think is going on here is that Schubert is experiencing a little bit of a genre problem. The Schubert orchestral MO does not quite work here because there is a narrative (and vocalists) and the song MO doesn’t work because of the change in the size of the focus. Schubert did write for the stage, but not as prolifically as in other genres, and much of his stage music is in the ‘singspiel’ rather than the ‘opera’ category. With this particular opera he never got a chance to see it staged. So the problem could simply be that this opera is part of a learning process that Schubert never got a chance to complete. On the other hand, it could be that Schubert was a song composer, and a chamber music composer, and a symphony composer – but not an opera composer.

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