EURYANTHE Opens at Bard SummerScape this Week
To enrich its immersion in "Schubert and His World," Bard SummerScape 2014 presents Euryanthe (1823) by Carl Maria von Weber, marking the opera's first American revival in 100 years. Headlined by Ellie Dehn, "a charismatic soprano with great stage presence" (Wall Street Journal), Bard's original staging is by Kevin Newbury, creator of SummerScape's "gold standard production" (WQXR) of Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae. Euryanthe's five performances (July 25, 27 & 30; August 1 & 3) feature the festival's resident American Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of music director Leon Botstein, who also leads semi-staged performances of Schubert's own seldom-heard opera Fierrabras, starring Joseph Kaiser, on August 17, and of a double-bill of rarities - Schubert's one-act Singspiel Die Verschworenen and the first American presentation of Franz von Suppé's operetta Franz Schubert - on August 10. As the Financial Times concluded last season, "Some of the most important summer opera experiences in the U.S. are not at the better known festivals but at Bard SummerScape."
It was Schubert's contemporary Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) who established Germany's homegrown Romantic opera tradition, yet his opera Euryanthe - despite being hailed as "musically sublime" (The Guardian) and arguably "Weber's greatest masterpiece" (NPR) - remains largely neglected. Revivals of the complete opera are rare, not least in America, where it has not been seen since the Metropolitan Opera's staging 100 years ago, in 1914.
Bard's upcoming production therefore marks a major historical milestone. Irish Times Theatre Award-winner Kevin Newbury returns to direct, following his success with Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae at SummerScape three years ago; WQXR named the production one of the "Best of 2011," and the New York Times observed: "An opera needs to be able to catch fire onstage, and in the SummerScape production, directed with imagination and emotional nuance by Kevin Newbury, Danae certainly does."
In an illuminating program note, Newbury explains:
"As a director, I have always been drawn to operas that have fallen out of favor due to the alleged 'credibility gaps' inherent in their librettos. Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, which I directed here at Bard in 2011, is often called 'unstageable,' ... [and] Weber's Euryanthe contains similar story-telling challenges due to Helmina von Chézy's confusing libretto and incongruous stage directions. ... After some initial head-scratching, my design team and I found several visual and narrative solutions to these textual problems.
"It is a joy directing an opera like Euryanthe, with its rich characters and gorgeous music. Once we set aside any literal interpretation of the bizarre stage directions, the piece began to reveal itself in fascinating ways; in fact, for us, the problems in the text became its virtues."
In the title role of his SummerScape production is Ellie Dehn, whose "melting yet clear soprano" impressed the New York Times when she portrayed Catherine of Aragon with "eloquence and power" in Saint-Saëns's Henry VIII at SummerScape two years ago. Opposite her, as Euryanthe's fiancé Adolar, is lyric tenor William Burden, who may be heard on the Metropolitan Opera's 2013 Grammy Award-winning recording of The Tempest by Thomas Adès, with soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer as Euryanthe's ill-fated rival Eglantine, bass-baritone Ryan Kuster as Lysiart, and bass Peter Volpe - whose "robust voice and charismatic presence" (New York Times) graced Bard's staging of Les Huguenots - as King Ludwig. The new production runs for five performances (July 25, 27 & 30; August 1 & 3), with an Opera Talk, free and open to the public, before the matinee on July 27.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) attempted more than a dozen works for the stage, of which Fierrabras (1823) is perhaps the finest. Although it was never staged during his lifetime, the opera - the story of a fictitious Saracen knight at the time of Charlemagne - has since found a following; at its 1988 Austrian premiere, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung declared that, "against the judgment of history," Fierrabras was "triumphantly rescued" at last. Heading Bard's cast in the title role is tenor Joseph Kaiser, "a singer of unnerving ability, blessed with a muscular but flexible sound, plenty of tonal color and technical proficiency - not to mention a full helping of charismatic good looks" (San Francisco Chronicle). Bass Eric Halfvarson, who recently took London's BBC Proms by storm as Fafner, sings Karl (aka Charlemagne), with soprano Sara Jakubiak as his daughter Emma, and baritone Andrew Schroeder and tenor Eric Barry as his knights Roland and Eginhard. Bard's semi-staged production is the creation of Dmitry Troyanovsky, Zane Pihlstrom, and S. Katy Tucker. Led by Leon Botstein, it is Fierrabras on August 17 that draws the 25th anniversary season of the Bard Music Festival - and, indeed, the entire seven-week Bard SummerScape festival - to a gripping close.
Another of Schubert's works for the stage is Die Verschworenen ("The Conspirators," 1823). With a libretto derived from Aristophanes's satire Lysistrata, this one-act Singspiel is a sparkling, attractively scored comedy that enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in the 1860s. On August 10, Bard pairs a semi-staged performance of Die Verschworenen with the first American presentation of another long-forgotten Viennese favorite: Franz von Suppé's one-act operetta Franz Schubert (1864), a hit in its day, which incorporates Schubert's own melodies into a loosely biographical piece depicting - with considerable artistic license - the inspiration behind the songs of Die schöne Müllerin. With Leon Botstein leading members of the American Symphony Orchestra and James Bagwell directing the Bard Festival Chorale, the SummerScape performances boast a first-rate cast, with soprano Deanna Breiwick, and tenors Paul Appleby and Nicholas Phan, who, "with his sweet, clear voice, is on a career roll" (New York Times).