Carl Maria von Weber

Asides on Euryanthe and Carl Maria von Weber

Domenico Barbaia was the entrepreneur of the Kärntnerthortheater in Vienna in the early 1820s, as well as the Theater auf der Wieden; he was also in charge of other major opera houses in Italy, notably San Carlo in Naples and later La Scala in Milan. He was more or less responsible for Rossini’s meteoric rise to world recognition and, arguably, the very shape of his operas: Barbaia’s mistress, the great Isabella Colbran, first became Rossini’s mistress soon after his arrival in Naples in 1815 and later his wife, but, equally important, she was also the leading coloratura mezzo soprano for several of his operas of that period. Rossini wrote the roles of Desdemona and Armida, among others, specifically for Colbran’s voice.

On the lookout for any rising local talent (and a good box office), Barbaia commissioned Carl Maria von Weber to write an opera for Vienna in the same style as his highly successful Der Freischütz, which had already swept Eastern Europe like the forces unleashed in the Wolf Glen following its premiere in Berlin in 1821. A young, deeply impressionable Richard Wagner would shake in fear at the spirits and spells conjured by the orchestra. Weber jumped at the prospect: to make it big in Vienna was the dream all German composers had at one point or another in their careers.

Scenery for the Wolf's Glen, Act II, Scene II from The Victor Book of the Opera

Scenery for the Wolf's Glen, Act II, Scene II from The Victor Book of the Opera

Enter Helmina von Chézy: she and her husband had known Friedrich von Schlegel in Paris; Schlegel was one of the keystones of the German Romantic movement, mainly in literature. Helmina drank deeply from the well and continued to write after relocating to Dresden. Perhaps Weber assumed he’d benefit by hitching a ride on the coattails of a bona fide, not to say widely recognized Romantic author like Helmina von Chézy. Apparently she suggested other plots to him, but he found the story of the pure Euryanthe of Savoy, with its underlying ghostly theme, closer to his strengths. Helmina wrote the libretto. Weber apparently found her poetry suitable enough but her headstrong personality ‘unbearable.’

Der Freischütz had been criticized for its singspiel structure: set musical numbers with dialogue interspersed. As customary at least in France and Italy, serious operas were through-composed, meaning that the music continued from beginning to end. Hector Berlioz, who became ‘intoxicated’ with Weber’s music and who studied his scores assiduously, remedied this fault by composing recitatives so that Der Freischütz could premiere at the Opéra in Paris in 1841; Berlioz also orchestrated Weber’s The Invitation to the Dance and inserted it for a ballet, another requirement for the Opéra.

Point here: no doubt Weber felt considerable pressure to make his new grand opera in the same style as that of the serious French or Italian operas. Euryanthe is through composed and has at least a short ballet and a march or two. But Weber seems to have gotten seriously bogged down with the grand opera style. The heavy handed Euryanthe often times lumbers along, particularly as the soloists hash out the details of the plot. Most of the pleasing melodies in Euryanthe are given voice by the chorus and the secondary characters.

Relatively speaking, Der Freischütz zips through the story in the dialogue. Since the musical numbers are clearly defined with a beginning and an end, there is no need for transitions to link the lyrical sections with the more expository sections. Its vibrant musical numbers make Der Freischütz so exhilarating, the characters so sharply delineated and alive.

Lysiart, the villain in Euryanthe, is sort of a dud compared to Kaspar, the bad guy in Freischütz.  Truth is many operatic villains are relative duds compared to a well done Kaspar! Friedrich von Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin, to some extent modeled on Lysiart, is also weak, but his weakness is a part of the plot.

Euryanthe is less vulnerable, less placid, less trusting than Agathe, i.e., more like the strong women in Wagner, but Euryanthe’s solos are less appealing on first exposure. Agathe’s aria in Act II Leise, leise, fromme Weise! says it all about her character, as does her reverie in Act III Und ob die Wolken sie verhülle.

And then there is Ännchen, Agathe’s relative in Der Freischütz. As the soubrette, she provides a big smile and an optimistic burst of energy in character and in music, in contrast to Agathe’s mellow but worried nature. Their duet in the opening of Act II is a heavenly contrast of personalities.

Ännchen comes from a long line of soubrette characters in the early German operas. Her forebears are Blonde in Mozart’s Entführung, Papagena in Die Zauberflöte, and Marzellina in Beethoven’s Fidelio; and will later reappear as Adele in Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. Mozart also includes the type in his Italian operas: Susanna in Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and Despina in Cosí fan tutte, to name three. Poor Euryanthe has no such emotional relief. Nor do we.

No, Euryanthe has Eglantine, who feigns friendship, but who ultimately is mean and aggressive, in the mode of Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin. However Eglantine’s character is not as greatly developed. After all, Ortrud gets an entire act to reveal the various sides of her character with Friedrich, next with Elsa, and then with the King and the assembled citizens of Antwerp. Her clever nosing-up to Elsa is punctuated by the show-stopping outburst of rage, Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!

But more telling are the larger differences between Euryanthe and Lohengrin. Wagner was able to sustain dramatic tension over blocks of music whereas Weber hadn’t quite mastered the art of the long stretch. From Friedrich’s first accusations to Lohengrin’s entrance is about 25 minutes of uncomfortable uncertainty, desperate silence and waiting for Elsa’s champion; from Elsa’s entrance with her bridal procession to the end of Act II is just under 30 minutes, with the negative energy accumulating to the final curtain.

Without question Wagner was sensitive to the sound picture of Euryanthe: Based on its themes he composed a piece for wind instruments entitled Trauermusik for the return of Weber’s remains from London to Saxony in 1844 (Weber died in London in 1826, months shy of his 40th birthday). Wagner also remembered strains of the prelude to Act III of Euryanthe for his own prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde.

Sadly, Euryanthe was no match for the Italian operas of Rossini, which Barbaia also continued to import to Vienna. Even Wagner later complained that the Germans seemed to prefer Rossini to native composers. But Euryanthe was successful in Dresden; it traveled slowly through Europe and across the channel: At London’s Covent Garden in 1833 it starred the great Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient in the title role. Wagner conducted Euryanthe at Magdeburg in the mid-1830s. He later chose Ms. Schröder-Devrient to create the roles of Adriano (in Rienzi), Senta (in Holländer) and Venus (in Tannhäuser).

Euryanthe arrived at the Metropolitan Opera on December 23, 1887 (U.S. and Met Premiere); the four performances sported the likes of Lilli Lehmann in the title role, Max Alvary as Adolar, Marianne Brandt as Eglantine, and Emil Fischer as the King, conducted by Anton Seidl. These singers were stalwarts of the first Ring operas in the USA. Curiously, an anonymous reviewer at the Met that winter praised Euryanthe as “one of the most tuneful works in the German repertory,” Perhaps by 1888 audiences at the Met where still reeling from their first introductions to the major Wagner operas.  “Endless melody” notwithstanding, after Tristan und Isolde or Siegfried practically everything written earlier in the German repertory seems more tuneful.

Six more performances of Euryanthe graced the Met’s stage during the 1914-1915 season, this time with Frieda Hempel and Johannes Sembach, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

My favorite book on Carl Maria von Weber is by John Warrack, published by The Macmillan Company in 1968. Several inexpensive used copies, mostly in ‘good library shape’ can be found at http://www.ABEbooks.com. Truth is, almost anything you seek can be found there, even if eventually through a wish list.

Also on this site, please find the review of the 2014 Bard College production of Euryanthe under Regional Opera Reviews as well as recommendations of recordings of Weber’s Operas on CD and DVD on this site under Opera Recordings.