Franz Schubert’s “Fierabras” in Salzburg
Performances of Franz Schubert’s most important opera continue to be rare events. So this year’s Salzburg Festival project to stage Fierabras in a highly promising new production and encourage debate about it once more is all the more remarkable. The director is Peter Stein, and conductor Ingo Metzmacher. The musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic will be playing from performance material from the New Schubert Edition specially produced for this production by Bärenreiter-Verlag. The first performance in the Haus für Mozart is on 13 August.
The “heroic-Romantic” opera Fierabras was composed in 1823 as Schubert’s last major stage work. For three years he strove to achieve an operatic success. In 1820 his incidental music Die Zauberharfe and the one-act Die Zwillingsbrüder in Vienna had brought him to public attention; proponents of German opera now encouraged him to write a full-length opera. Alfonso and Estrella was not taken up, but on 11 October 1823 the Wiener Allgemeine Theaterzeitung reported that “the first major opera by the very promising Schubert ... Fierobras nach Calderon” would appear shortly. This hope was entirely justified, because Josef Kupelwieser, the secretary of the Kärntnertortheater, had written the libretto himelf, based on a medieval myth.
Kupelwieser’s drama followed the model of the then-popular French “rescue opera”: much of the plot takes place on and off the stage, culminating in large-scale tableaux. Grand marches and choruses provided the framework to the acts, victory celebrations and court scenes with pomp and ceremony; fanfares and drum rolls accompany the tumult of battle between Moors and Christians. At the same time, in Schubert’s music a great deal of the Italian style is heard dressed up in French guise, such as the Rossinian parlando of the pursuers chorus no. 8 and in the peace celebrations of no. 11, which leads into a terrifically fast stretto. As with most German operas of this time, Fierabras is a number opera with spoken dialogue. Both librettist and composer strove to achieve a seamless transition between text and music. Examples of this are Roland’s report of the battle in the ensemble no. 4 and Florinda’s melodramas in the second act, which are amongst the most gripping scenes in the opera.
The individual loves and sorrows of the main figures are always linked to the collective fate, as in French models. The Knight Roland loves the Moorish princess Florinda, the Muslim Fierabras the Christian King’s daughter Emma, who becomes engaged to the knight Eginhard without her father’s permission. Roland does not want to fight any longer, but to make peace, Florinda betrays her noble birth in order to save the enemy, and Fierabras converts to Christianity because he despises his father’s barbarity.
Politics should be based on reconciliation and tolerance, social standing on service and contribution, marriages entered into for love and women not condemned to passive obedience: Kupelwieser took many of the ideals and political aims of the younger generation of the 19th century as his themes, and slipped them past the censor under the guise of a medieval knightly tale.
It was in these themes and the experimental variety of the dramatic form that Fierabras might have made a notable contribution to the genre of German opera. But it was not because it was unsuitable for the stage, but only because of unfortunate circumstances at the Kärntnertortheater that Fierabras was not performed in autumn 1823. It was only finally performed in 1897. However, since its rediscovery in the 1980s, it has been demonstrated that Schubert’s opera Fierabras can achieve great effect on the stage.
Christine Martin(translation: Elizabeth Robinson)(from [t]akte 1/2014)