Alfonso und Estrella, D. 732 (1821-23)
Romantic opera in three acts after a libretto by Franz von Schober (1798-1882)
(b. Vienna, 31 January 1797; d. Vienna, 19 November 1828)
Students of Schubert have never ceased to marvel at the vast productivity of this darling of the muses, who managed to turn out, in the thirty-one years of his brief life, more pages of superb music than most composers can aspire to in a biblical lifetime. Yet few realize that the largest single body of his work was devoted to – not the 650 songs, not the ten symphonies or the fifteen string quartets, not even the countless piano duets, but to opera. Like most composers of his age, Schubert realized that the sure path to fame and recognition passed over the opera stage, and he tried his hand at the intractable genre from his earliest years. If Des Teufels Lustschloss was essentially an apprentice work by the sixteen-year-old composer that still bears the corrections of his teacher Antonio Salieri in the surviving manuscript, Die Zwillingsbrüder (1820) and Die Zauberharfe (1820) were commissioned works that were given full hearings on the Vienna stage – and were found wanting. Schubert had to tailor these works to satisfy the stipulations of Viennese theater impresarios, and it was only natural that he should look for the causes of his failure, not in his own score, but in the constraints under which he was made to operate. His next opera, he concluded, would be fashioned entirely to his own wishes, without a commission, and without constraints.
The result was Alfonso und Estrella, a broadly conceived work in the newly emerging genre of German romantic opera then being explored by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber. It was the grandest stage work to proceed from his pen and the only one of his fifteen operas to dispense entirely with spoken dialogue. The librettist was his good friend, the brilliant and affluent Franz von Schober, who shared Schubert’s operatic ambitions if not his mastery of his respective art. In September 1821 the two young men retired from Vienna to the nearby town of St. Pölten, where they fervently worked on the opera for a solid month. Their working methods could not have been closer: the two friends, according to Schober, stayed in the same room, where Schubert set the words as fast as the librettist could write them. The grand romantic opera emerged at a pace that astonishes even by Schubert’s standards: Act 1 was written from 20 September to 16 October, Act 2 from 18 October to 2 November (now back in Vienna), and Act 3 was completed by 27 February 1822. The splendid overture was added in February 1823, after which the work was ready to find its way onto the boards.
This proved to be more difficult than expected. Schubert’s ardent champion and favorite singer, Johann Michael Vogl, was disappointed at the result and declined to use his influence to effect a performance at the Court Opera. Another Schubert singer, the great soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann, was approached in Berlin. Though convinced of Schubert’s genius, it became her unhappy task to inform the composer that the work was incompatible with Berlin’s operatic tastes, which, she claimed, ranged from high tragedy to French comic opera and would not traffic with fanciful romanticism. Her opinion was probably meant only to soften the blow (Berlin had already witnessed the triumphant premières of Hoffmann’s Undine and Weber’s Freischütz, the quintessence of German romanticism) and more likely reflects her reaction to the absence of a clearly etched part for dramatic soprano. Whatever the case, Schubert was forced to look elsewhere. Weber, then court conductor in Dresden, expressed strong interest in the work, but lost interest just as quickly when Schubert tactlessly showed dissatisfaction with his most recent opera Euryanthe (1823). As late as 1827 Schubert sent his autograph score to Graz in the hope that it might at least find a production in the provinces. Even this hope failed to materialize, however. Schubert proceeded to do what opera composers have always tended to do with their failures: he cannibalized it. The fine overture was incorporated into the incidental music to Rosamunde in December 1823 (Schubert later referred to it as his “Rosamunde Overture”); it was also published as a piano duet in 1826 and reissued in 1830; two bass arias, “Doch im Getümmel der Schlacht” (no. 8) and “Wenn ich dich, Holde, sehe” (no. 13), were published separately in the composer’s own vocal score (1832). Most strikingly, a version of the “Song of the Cloud-Maiden” (Act 2, no. 11) found its way with minor alterations into the song-cycle Die Winterreise as “Täuschung” (1827). But by the time of his early death Schubert had never heard Alfonso und Estrella, which existed in two manuscripts: one in Berlin and one in Graz, neither of which had been returned to the composer.
The posthumous fate of the opera was similarly bleak. In 1854 Franz Liszt, probably at the instigation of Schober, who was now a minor official in Weimar, undertook to give the work its first hearing. Liszt was a devout believer in Schubert’s genius and hoped that his production, at the Weimar Court Theater, would establish Schubert ex post facto as a stage composer. His heavily abridged version was duly performed on 24 June 1854 but, like so many of Liszt’s pioneering efforts, had no lasting impact. He also tried to interest the French publisher Escudier in “cette charmante musique … le succès, et un succès populaire et productif, est indubitable” (letter of 21 January 1854). But the success was anything but “indubitable,” and Escudier declined. A certain J. N. Fuchs produced a heavily bowdlerized arrangement that was performed in Karlsruhe in 1881 and many other cities thereafter (including, finally, the Vienna Court Opera in 1882); he also published his arrangement in piano-vocal score (1882) and undertook the first complete publication (minus the overture) for the first Schubert Gesamtausgabe (1892). Still the work failed to hold the stage. An even more heavily bowdlerized version was then produced by Kurt Honolka who, drawing on parallels between the libretto and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, concocted a pastiche to which he gave the title Die Wunderinsel (“The Magic Island”) and had it mounted in Stuttgart and Linz in 1958.
What about Schubert’s original? It was not until 1993-5 that Alfonso und Estrella was finally published intact in the New Schubert Gesamtausgabe. The first complete performance, albeit unstaged, was broadcast by Radio Beromünster in 1949, while the first complete stage production, albeit in English, was given at Reading University in 1977, followed one year later in Detroit. The first complete stage performance of Alfonso und Estrella in its original language had to wait almost 170 years until Mario Venzago conducted the work at the Graz opera house in 1991. Since then it has been featured at the Vienna Festival (1997) and has maintained a tenuous hold in the repertoire, if only for the charm of its lied-like arias, its splendid instrumentation, and its remarkable foreshadowing, noted by Liszt, of Wagnerian leitmotif and recitativo accompagnato. Perhaps the most fitting assessment of its worth was advanced by the great Schubert scholar Maurice J. E. Brown: “The score contains as much fine and outstanding music as any other full length opera ever written, if we judge the score purely as music. … Alfonso und Estrella would need skillful production, adequate setting and – if necessary – musicianly cutting, if it were to make its full effect: precisely, in fact, what most of the operas in the repertory need.”
Cast of Characters
Mauregato, King of León (baritone)
Estrella, his daughter (soprano)
Adolfo, his field-marshal (bass)
Captain of Mauregato’s guard (tenor)
Froila, expelled king (baritone)
Alfonso, his son (tenor)
A girl (soprano)
A boy (tenor)
Chorus of peasants, hunters, huntresses, servants, soldiers
The action takes place in the fictitious kingdom of León in Spain.
Act 1: Froila, the rightful ruler of the Kingdom of León, has been driven out by Mauregato and has spent the last twenty years living in a remote mountain valley, tenderly revered by his subjects. His son Alfonso, now come of age, is oppressed by the narrowness of the valley and the clement rule of his father and wishes to reconquer the throne. Froila refuses to grant his permission, but gives him a talisman: the chain of Eurich, one of his predecessors on the throne of León. – The royal palace of Oviedo: Estrella, daughter of the illegitimate ruler Mauregato, is about to set out on the hunt with her girlfriends when she is interrupted by field-marshal Adolfo, who has just returned victorious from a battle with the Moors. Adolfo begs for her hand in marriage, but is rejected. Now he reasserts an earlier promise from Mauregato. Bound to his promise, Mauregato again grants his permission but adds one condition: Estrella’s hand shall be given only to the owner of Eurich’s chain. Adolfo threatens revenge for this rebuff.
Act 2: A mountain valley: Alfonso asks his father to sing, once again, the song of the Maiden of the Clouds. It tells the tale of a hunter who falls under the spell of an enticing phantasm in a dream; returning to reality, he can no longer find his way and plunges to his death. Though intended as a warning, Alfonso regards the song as a promise that he shall burst the confines of his narrow surroundings. At this very instant Estrella appears: she has become detached from the hunting party and has lost her way. To Alfonso, she seems like nothing other than the Maiden of the Clouds. The two young people conceal their true identities but sense a deep and immediate rapport. By his father’s command, Alfonso is not allowed to proceed beyond the valley, but he gives her Eurich’s chain as a gesture of farewell. – Oviedo: Adolfo surrounds himself with conspirators. Under the pretense of acting on behalf of Froila, whom he has long considered dead, he prepares to topple Mauregato from the throne. Meanwhile the king anxiously awaits a sign of life from his daughter. When she finally returns, he sees Eurich’s chain around her neck and is reminded of his crime against Froila. He explains to her that the chain is an extra condition attached to Adolfo’s marriage proposal, at which Estrella jubilantly announces that she wishes to marry the unknown young man from the mountains. Full of courage, she enjoins her father to enter the fray against Adolfo’s forces.
Act 3: The noise of the battle has penetrated Froila’s valley. Estrella flees from Adolfo, who threatens her with violence. At the last moment she is rescued by Alfonso and his troops, who take Adolfo prisoner. Estrella pleas for help for her father, and Alfonso sets out. Penitent and fleeing for his life, Mauregato encounters Froila – who forgives him. When Alfonso returns victorious, Adolfo too is forgiven by Mauregato: “Clemency eradicates guilt.” Froila passes the crown to his son, and the populace pay homage to Alfonso and Estrella as their new rulers.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden