The recent Salzburg production of Schubert’s opera Fierrabras is available for free via Medici.tv at the moment. I watched it because, well, one does. Although you can see why Schubert is known as a song writer rather than a composer of operas, it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours.
There were no subtitles as far as I could tell, but there are various bits of spoken dialogue that fill in useful information, and the story itself is not too difficult – especially since Salzburg’s production has all the Christians in white and all the Moors in black. I’m not sure whether this is intended to be “obvious” or merely obvious, but there is no chance that anyone could possibly get confused by it.
The story is about Charlemagne, who we’ll call Karl here minus the “great” because the libretto does, and his knights and a few other people. Karl’s daughter Emma (Julia Kleiter) is in love with a knight, Eginhard (Benjamin Bernheim), but they have to keep this a secret from her disapproving father. Karl’s knights defeat and capture Fierrabras (Michael Schade, wearing an alarming amount of bronzer) but they don’t lock him up; they merely take him back to their castle. When he gets there, he recognizes Emma, with whom he fell in love with at a distance in Rome. Rome was apparently the chivalric equivalent of OKCupid c. 800 – Fierrabras’s sister Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann) fell in love with a Christian knight, Roland, also at Rome under similar circumstances.
There is much sending of embassies and being captured and being re-captured in this story, and Eginhard comes off as a bit thick because at the end of Act I, there is a misunderstanding wherein Karl thinks Fierrabras is trying to abduct Emma, because Emma and Eginhard had met up at night in the garden, were interrupted by Fierrabras, and then Eginhard leaves before Karl shows up, making Fierrabras look guilty. Eginhard signally fails to clear the matter up, though you would think that letting someone else get locked up because you’re scared of your sweetheart’s dad is a little weak. (Maybe no one told him what had happened? I was not paying super-close attention to the ins and outs of this.) Although one might also wonder why Emma didn’t clear the matter up either – seems rather unfair to Fierrabras. But I guess she’s more scared of her dad than worried about the foreign guy wearing all that bronzer.
Anyway, after the misunderstanding in the garden, a bunch of Christian knights go to Fierrabras’s father’s castle, where his sister Florinda is mopey because she misses that guy she saw once in Rome; their father Boland hears of Fierrabras’s capture and takes all Karl’s knights prisoner, Florinda vows to free Roland and the others, and gives it the old college try – she reaches the room they’re locked up in, opens the door, and then promptly faints. Nice work, Florinda. But at least you knew where that convenient stash of swords was in the floor of the Imprisonment Room. I wonder why one would store weapons in the same room you use to lock your enemies up?
All is well by the end, however, although one is left wondering why the opera is called Fierrabras. He is no more central to the story than any of the other main characters; neither is the plot resolved via something that he does or doesn’t do. Maybe Fierrabras sounded tougher than, say Karl or Emma as an opera title? I am always happy to hear Michael Schade, though, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.
The music is surprisingly . . . catchy, and the orchestral music is performed with a crispness that works for the small scale of the opera. There were several points at which I was reminded of Schubert’s songs, e.g. in Act III there is a section where the clarinet is following the vocal line and it brought to mind “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” which contains similar woodwind/vocal writing. Also, the orchestral part of the women’s spinning song in Act I makes me think that Schubert had a real knack for music about spinning wheels. Occasionally things get a bit square – some of the men’s choruses feel a little stock. The best parts are the small ensembles and the solo bits. I had heard Julia Kleiter before as the scheming maid character in Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera; she’s got a role here that is not particularly interesting (all Emma does is wait and pine) but it’s still a pleasure to listen to – Emma’s bit in the garden scene in Act I was another of those moments when you appreciate Schubert’s vocal writing. Dorothea Röschmann gets more to do as Florinda – I guess Moorish princesses in operas are allowed to narrate battle scenes and stalk around with weapons, while Christian ones are not? – and does it with her usual intensity. The production is deliberately old fashioned, with palaces and towers represented very literally on flats – it’s charming, and reasonably entertaining; the opera as a whole might not be insanely compelling musical drama, but it’s a good excuse to spend a few hours listening to Schubert.