Franz Peter Schubert
(b. Vienna, 31 January 1797 – d. 19 November 1828)
Heroic-Romantic Opera in Three Acts
Although Franz Schubert’s status as one of the most beloved and most often performed composers of all time is unquestionable, his career in the field of opera remains all but unknown even to the vast majority of Schubert devotees. While his lieder, chamber works and symphonies have been standard repertory pieces for two centuries, the same cannot be said for his nearly twenty operas and other dramatic works.
Schubert composed his first opera, the singspiel Der Spiegelritter (with text by August von Kotzebue), in 1811. Shortly after this, he began composition lessons with Antonio Salieri. Under Salieri’s tutelage, Schubert set another Kotzebue libretto, Des Teufels Lustschloss, in 1813. During the opera craze that swept Vienna during the year of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), Schubert composed four more singspiels, none of which was ever performed during his lifetime. Indeed, of all of Schubert’s operas, only Die Zauberharfe and Der Zwillingsbrüder were premiered while the composer was still alive.
In the years following the Congress of Vienna, Schubert maintained a good relationship with the management of the Theater an der Wien and the Kärntnertortheater, and was employed for a time as a répétiteur at the latter establishment. His melodrama Die Zauberharfe received eight performances in August of 1820 and Schubert appeared destined for a great career as an opera composer. To this end, Schubert began composing his grand romantic opera Alfonso und Estrella in 1821. The opera, Schubert’s personal favorite among all of his dramatic works, was rejected by both the Wien and Kärntnertor theaters due to financial difficulties. The new manager of the two theaters, Domenico Barbaia, however, wanted to encourage Schubert to continue with his writing for the opera and commissioned him in 1823 to write the opera Fierrabras with a libretto written by Josef Kupelweiser, an administrator with the Kärntnertortheater. Ultimately, the opera was never premiered in Vienna due to the overwhelming popularity of Italian operas with the Viennese public.
Not long after the failure of Alfonso und Estrella and Fierrabras to get produced, Schubert largely gave up on theater music and devoted his waning strength to the composition of the great masses, song cycles and instrumental works of his final period.
There have been a number of reasons proposed as to why Schubert failed to achieve success as an opera composer. The most often cited reason is the poor quality and convoluted plots of the libretti he set to music. There is a certain amount of truth to this, and this is a problem that affects Fierrabras with its complicated plot and similarly named characters, (e.g., Roland, a French knight and Boland, a Moorish prince). But if complicated plots and convoluted dramatic structures are guarantees of operatic failure many of the greatest operas of all time would never have survived their premieres.
A second and more convincing reason is that German romantic operas in the first two decades of the 19th century simply did not have the box-office appeal of their Italian rivals among the opera-going public in Vienna. Rossini was simply more popular than either Schubert or Weber. In this sense, Schubert was both not in synch with contemporary tastes and ahead of his times. Had Schubert lived to be 70 he would have experienced the full blossoming and aesthetic ascendancy of German romantic opera.
A third reason for the failure of Schubert’s failure to achieve success as an operatic composer was that he had not fully evolved as a dramatic composer by the time of his early death at the age of 31. There are whole sections of brilliance in many of Schubert’s operas, passages of untold eloquence and dramatic intensity, and techniques which presage Marschner and Wagner, but regrettably, Schubert did not live long enough to complete a unified operatic work of consistent musical and dramatic quality. Imagine if Mozart had died before composing Idomeneo. He would have been remembered as one of the greatest composers of all time who showed great promise in the field of opera.
The plot of Fierrabras may be described as grand German romantic crusader opera. Set in the time of the reign of Charlemagne, the setting of the opera ranges from Charlemagne’s court in France to the lands of the Moors. At the beginning of the opera, Charlemagne and his troops are arriving having been home victorious over the Moors. Fierrabras, a Moorish prince, is a prisoner, but Roland, a French knight, is so impressed by Fierrabras’ nobility that he requests Charlemagne to free Fierrabras from captivity. Charlemagne does this and allows Fierrabras freedom of movement in his kingdom. Fierrabras reveals to Roland that Emma, Charlemagne’s daughter and the beloved of the knight Eginhard, is a woman he has been in love with ever since he encountered her during a diplomatic mission. Roland then tells Fierrabras that he is in love with Fierrabras’ sister Florinda. In the next scene, Eginhard is serenading Emma, who invites him into her quarters. Just as Charlemagne is about to discover Eginhard’s presence in Emma’s chambers, Fierrabras helps Eginhard to escape and takes the blame upon himself. Fierrabras is then accused of the attempted seduction of Emma and is imprisoned.
In Act II the French knights go to the lands of the Moors as part of a peace mission. They are tricked into being disarmed and are then imprisoned. About to be executed, Roland is seen by Florinda. She enters the prison and helps Eginhard to escape and seek help.
Act III has Charlemagne being informed of the innocence of Fierrabras. Fierrabras is released from prison. Eginhard returns and tells of the Moorish duplicity. Charlemagne puts Eginhard and Fierrabras in charge of the troops who will rescue the French knights from Moorish captivity. Just as Roland is to be executed by the Moors, Florinda reveals to her father her love for the French knight. Charlemagne’s forces rout the Moors and the unions of Emma/Eginhard, and Florinda/Roland are approved by both fathers. Fierrabras’ love remains unrequited, but his nobility achieves a transcendental character.
Schubert employs a wide variety of musico-dramatic forms in Fierrabras. His vocal declamation inclines more to the accompanied recitative. Indeed, the orchestra is an important character in the opera and Schubert is not afraid to utilize the entire resources of the orchestra to make his dramatic points. While the opera still uses much spoken dialogue, in the vocal scenes Schubert displays a tendency towards continuous music, and there are not always clear demarcations between aria, arioso, chorus and recitative.
Several scenes stand out for their musical and dramatic qualities. Roland’s Act I scene in which he praises the bravery and nobility of Fierrabras and asks Charlemagne for clemency (“Verzeih ihm, Herr!”) is not only an impassioned plea, but the orchestral accompaniment also gives the sense of the intensity of the battle that Roland is describing.
No less affecting is the serenade scene between Eginhard and Emma in the Finale of Act I. The clarinet obbligato in this scene is reminiscent to a certain degree of the composer’s well-known “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.” Clearly there is a close connection between the dramatic nature of Schubert’s lieder and his work in opera. That Schubert more quickly realized his dramatic genius in lieder than in opera is understandable given the shorter nature of the former. Again, it is tantalizing to think of what Schubert might have eventually accomplished in longer dramatic forms had his life not been so tragically cut short.
In Act II, Florinda has an emotionally intense aria (“Die Brust, gebeugt von Sorgen”) that withstands comparison with the great Mozartian rage arias, even that of Donna Elvira’s. And from a purely harmonic standpoint, the a capella Knights’ Chorus (“O teures Vaterland”) is as lovely as any similar chorus in Wagner’s music dramas.
Fierrabras did not receive its premiere until 9 February, 1897 at the Grossherzögliches Hof in Karlsruhe. It was not performed in Vienna until 1988 when Claudio Abbado conducted with Josef Protschka in the title role and Thomas Hampson as Roland. This version was recorded and is available on compact disk.
Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden