Weber, Carl Maria von
Carl Maria von Weber
„Oberon“ Romantic Opera in Three Acts
(Born December 1786 in Eutin, North Germany – Died May 6, 1826 in London)
Libretto: James Robinson Planché
Based on the poem Oberon by Chr. M. Wieland
Premiere: Covent Garden, London, April 12, 1826 under the direction of C. M. v. Weber
Carl Maria von Weber was born on December 18, 1786 in a pub in the North German town of Eutin to a family that was neither aristocratic nor Austrian in heritage. At the time of his birth, his father’s theater company was touring through the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Weber’s mother’s name was Genoveva (maiden name Brenner), and was Franz Anton Weber’s second wife. her family came from the Allgäu in Southern Germany, and she received her education as a singer in Vienna. Weber’s father came from a black-forest family of craftsmen and civil servants. Because his own ancestry appeared to him as “insufficient“, he began to create his own “better and more interesting” version of his heritage. He was also disappointed with the musical gifts of his son Carl Maria and he began to impose much higher expectations onto his son– he wanted him to become a Mozart-like “Wunderkind” at the piano and the violin, and also claimed that Mozart’s wife Konstanza was a relative of the family.
Until the age of twelve, Carl Maria traveled with his parents and their theater company from town to town. While the traveling years stopped abruptly with the death of his mother, the restlessness remained a part of Weber for most of his adult life. As Weber grew, his father sent him off to school—First in Salzburg, where he received lessons from Haydn’s younger brother Michael, then later on in Vienna, where he became a student of Abbé Vogler. At the young age of 18, the young Carl Maria von Weber became Kapellmeister in the town of Breslau with the help of Vogler’s recommendation. Following this position, Weber was staying at the court of Duke Eugen of Württemberg in Stuttgart, when some money that Carl Maria was supposed to administer disappeared. He served a short prison term, yet was expelled from the country all the same. He moved on to Mannheim and Darmstadt, where he founded a Philharmonic Society with Giacomo Meyerbeer. Like Meyerbeer, Weber was an outstanding pianist and in addition an excellent conductor. However, his abilities as a singer had faded due to an accidental consumption of nitric acid. For several years, Weber traveled throughout Germany as a pianist, teacher and conductor, until he settled down for the first time in Prague where he accepted the position of music director and conductor at the Prague State Theater. Three years later, he followed an invitation to establish the newly built Deutsche Oper in Dresden, which was considered a German cultural counterpart to the standard Opera Houses of the Italian Court at the time. After an affair with an unscrupulous Prima Donna, which almost ruined his life, he finally married the singer Caroline Brandt, who loved and understood him. They settled down in Klein-Hosterwitz, a small town near Dresden, and were surrounded by children, a dog, a cat and a monkey. Here, Weber was able to begin working with much greater seriousness and focus.
During his early years, Weber had already written his first and often forgotten operas, such as Das stumme Waldmädchen (1800) and Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (1803). In 1810 followed Silvana, which was a revised version of Das stumme Waldmädchen. Due to his experiences with theater, his early works were all dramatically well composed, yet lacked a uniqueness and individual personality in regard to their music. With his one-act opera Abu Hassan (1811) his own distinctive language began to unfold. However, it is during the period of his residence in Dresden when he composed his most ingenious operas, such as his Preciosa (1821), and the most influential of his major last three operas, Der Freischütz (1821). It was through these works that Weber gained fame and respect as the founder of the new genre known as German Romantic Opera. Weber was not only considered an inventive spirit as a composer, but also in other fields such as manager and organizer of the Dresden Opera. He thoroughly cleared up the inner structures of the house, made the production process for the operas much more efficient, and even fought for a newly defined role of the conductor. The conductor became the authority for all major decisions, which had to be followed by singers as well as the orchestral musicians. Weber’s regrouping and restructuring of the orchestra and its musicians are still the basic principles which are valid today. His rehearsals were precise and did not allow for any type of inaccuracy. As well, he did not hesitate to interfere with matters of staging and stage direction. Von Weber was a mastermind in the world of theater and the first contemporary music director in opera (Opern -Kapellmeister). Yet, at the same time due to his many talents, he was viewed as an outsider of the world of opera in his time and was not always taken seriously. He represented a new type of academically oriented musician (Bildungsmusiker) that the majority of people, due to their attachment to 18th century thinking and customs, were unable to accept. During his time, Weber, with his intense scope of activities, was often viewed as a charlatan.
Von Weber fought against these perceptions with the new weapons of his time: by writing and publishing various manifests, polemic articles and public letters. The king of Saxony and his court preferred the Italian Opera for the city of Dresden, where this operatic style was still practiced until 1832– the longest of anywhere in Germany. That explains why neither Der Freischütz, which was premiered in the newly built Schauspielhaus in Berlin (designed by the famous architect Schinkel), nor Euryanthe (1823), which had been commissioned by the Kärntnertor-Theater in Vienna, nor von Weber’s last opera Oberon were premiered in Dresden.
Weber intended to dedicate the opera Die drei Pintos to the king. However, the opera was rejected and never completed. Gustav Mahler completed the opera which then had its premiere in Leipzig in 1888. The success of Der Freischütz in Berlin was extraordinary and one of the greatest in the history of opera per se. This operatic triumph lead to a demand for operas written by Weber from opera houses in Paris and London. Carl Maria von Weber chose London and composed the opera Oberon for Covent Garden. To be able to rehearse the opera in London, Weber studied the English language, even though he was suffering from a severe and life-threatening illness, knowing that he would not live much longer. Conscientiously he conducted the premiere in London on April 12, 1826, as well as the remaining other twelve performances to fulfill the conditions of the contract. On June 5, 1826, Carl Maria von Weber died of tuberculosis. His life ended in a state of exhaustion and homesickness.
Due to Richard Wagner’s influence, Weber’s remains were brought to Dresden in 1844. Wagner, who was a great admirer of Weber, spoke the following words at Weber’s final resting place: “…. Only the German can love you; you belong to him, a wonderfully beautiful day in his life, a warm drop of his blood, a part of his heart.”
Hector Berlioz wrote: “Despite the overwhelming success and popularity of his Freischütz, and even though he was without doubt aware of his own genius, Weber would have been truly happy had he received a much more humble and sincere form of admiration. He has composed highly regarded works that were received by artists and critics with an overly contemptuous indifference. His … Euryanthe had achieved a sort of semi success only; the possibility that such a work would only please an audience composed of poets and questionable intellectuals had to make him somewhat concerned about the destiny of his Oberon.
The king of kings, Beethoven, has misjudged him for a long time. It is more than comprehensible that he, as he has stated in writing, lived with doubts concerning his musical vocation and that the punch he received with his Oberon was his own deathblow.” Although Beethoven did not like Weber’s later works so much, he stated after Die Freischütz: “… I would have never believed that he is capable of doing this. Now, Weber has to write operas, especially operas, one after the other, without wasting any time on over-critical remarks or doubts…” Weber was only sixteen years younger than Beethoven and died roughly nine months before him.
For forty years, both composers had lived side by side, and yet one would not mention them in one breath or label them as contemporaries. Both are idioms of two contrary epochs: classicism and romanticism. Weber was not interested in the topics that characterized classicism: form, polyphonic style and symphonic development. Weber developed his forms in a playful and capricious manner, to create “a particular impression with every single part”. He wanted to paint rich and colorful moods, dreams and yearnings. Hence, he wanted to communicate feelings, which live spontaneously in any romantic soul; feelings that already had been expressed by the creative writings and poetry of his time, but that had not yet been expressed by music. The sound itself and the harmonies represented the greatest difference between Weber’s music and that of contemporaries and earlier composers. His instrumentation and use of lower registers (His utilization of the Clarinet for example) were new to the musical world. Weber played with the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, but never realized it. He was the first to use a Leitmotiv and motifs for the purpose of recollection in an opera. The opera Euryanthe is through – composed. Here, Weber has completely deserted the concept of a numerically designed form and instead combined all scenic events with a forward looking vision. Wagner paid great attention to this. However, in Oberon, Weber turned away from these concepts and returned to the traditional dialogue opera by using well tried and long standing ideas and even Rossini-like qualities. Weber greatly struggled with the libretto, which was a mixture of a poem by Wieland and works by Shakespeare. Weber’s idea of the opera “which the German wants” did not harmonize with the popular style in England at the time.
Great and beautiful music was used for a confusingly complex piece (especially the stage set) which was extremely difficult to stage. Weber first wrote Hüon’s aria during late February of 1825. The score was completed only a few days before the premiere in 1826. In the same year, the young Mendelssohn had composed the ingenious Sommernachtstraum Overture, yet Weber’s world of elves is much more charming, enchanting and teasing. With its particular rhythms (especially those for Puck’s alto part), the winds, timpani and choirs, the piece contains an endless array of fantasy. Where the libretto allowed it, Weber composed almost impressionistic moods, created wild forces of nature as well as internal landscapes with great intensity and beauty. One of the most well known sections is the singing of the mermaids. Rezia’s great and romantic aria “Ozean, du Ungeheuer!” became a popular concert aria. The music with its virtuoso and stormy singing conjures the rough ocean; light is flashing and hope for the coming rescue emerges; Rezia shouts with joy towards her beloved Hüon and sings herself into a form of hysteria which reveals itself as nothing but illusion. At last, Weber composed the overture, which represents a large symphonic poem based on the motifs of the opera. Even though Oberon itself fell into oblivion, the overture still remains immortal. The author of the libretto, James Rombinson Planché (1796-1880), who was a sculptor, heraldic artist and author, had already translated operas by Mozart, Rossini and Bellini into English. His version of Der Freischütz had caused the director of the Covent Garden, Kemple, to hire him for the libretto of Oberon. With his writings and translations, Planché was the third author who had a negative impact on Weber’s work. In his dedication to Weber in his dramatically and literarily inferior Oberon text, Planché wrote: “… the fragile strand, onto which a great composer threads his precious beads and pearls…” Probably, Planché’s statement was much more insightful than originally intended. The libretto was based on Huon de Bordeaux by Villeneuve (13th century) and Oberon by Wieland (1780). The German translation was realized by Theodor Hell (1775 – 1856), who had also written the text for Weber’s unfinished opera Die drei Pintos.
Location and Time: Franken, Baghdad and Tunis, in the year 1806
Oberon, King of theElves………………………………………Tenor
Titania, hiswife………………………………………………….Speaking Part
Hüon von Bordeaux………………………………………………Tenor
Scherasmin, his court servant………………………………….Baritone
Harun al Raschid, Caliph of Baghdad………………………Speaking Part
Rezia, his daughter………………………………………………..Soprano
Fatima, her friend………………………………………………….Soprano
Babekan, Persian prince; Abdallah, pirate; Almansor, Emir of Tunis; Roschana, his wife; Nadine, their slave; Emperor Karl the Great – all speaking parts;
Mesru, guard of the harem; Elves, spirits and ghosts of the ocean. Caliph’s following. Servants of the harem. Slaves. Guards of the garden. Pirates.
Followers of the Emperor.
Oberon and Titania have had a severe argument over the question of whether men or women are more faithful. Both would only find peace if the question was adequately
answered. The example of an actual couple is supposed to lead to the right answer. Puck tells Oberon about the knight Hüon, who, in self-defense, had killed one of the sons of Emperor Karl the Great. The Emperor had then ruled that, as a punishment, Hüon had to go to Baghdad to kill the man on the right hand of the Caliph and then kidnap the Caliph’s daughter Rezia. Oberon decides to use both Hüon and Rezia. He lets each of them appear in each other’s dreams so that they fall in love with one another’s dream
appearance. By the use of magic powers, Oberon makes Hüon and his servant Scherasmin come to him. Oberon waves his scepter and by doing so, magically lets
Baghdad appear in front of his eyes. After Hüon receives a magic horn, he and Scherasmin begin their travel. Rezia has deeply fallen in love with the knight she has seen in her dreams. She would rather die than agree to marry Prince Babekan, when her friend Fatima brings the news that Hüon has arrived in Baghdad to save her.
In the ballroom of Harun al Raschid the festivities for the marriage between Babekan and Rezia have already started. Hüon enters tempestuously. He recognizes the daughter of the Caliph, kisses her and kills Prince Babekan, who was sitting to the right side of the Caliph. Both Hüon and Rezia flee the scene. The court and its guests are paralyzed by the sound of the magic horn. Scherasmin, together with Fatima, follow his master into the garden where he wins Fatima’s heart. When both couples attempt to flee, the garden guards try to stop them. A second sound from the magic horn summons Oberon’s help. Oberon then warns them to always be faithful and leads them to the ship which will rescue them. Now the tests which Oberon has chosen to impose onto the couple begin. Puck uses the ocean’s ghosts and spirits to generate a storm. When Hüon’s ship is
wrecked by hitting the boulder of an island, he carries Rezia on land. During her rescue he looses the magic horn. Hüon leaves Rezia, who has fallen asleep, in order to look for
help. When Rezia awakes, she remembers the storm with horrors. She recognizes a ship and believes that Hüon is returning to meet her again. Instead of Hüon, the pirate Abdallah appears from the ship and violently abducts Rezia to then bring her to the court of Emir Almansor of Tunis. Hüon tries to free Rezia but looses the fight. Oberon now realizes that he has exaggerated his plan and allows Hüon to awake again in the garden of Almansor of Tunis. While the ghosts and spirits of the airs and the waters sing, the sun sets and the night comes.
Fatima and Scherasmin have been sold to the Emir Almansor as slaves. In the garden of the Emir, Fatima longs for home. Hüon, who gradually awakes, is told by Fatima and Scherasmin that Rezia is very close by. In the palace, Emir Almansor declares his love
for Rezia and lets her know that he will use force in order to call her his own. Nevertheless, she resists and refuses to obey. Roschana, the Efir’s wife, witnesses the scene and swears revenge. She asks for Hüon to come and offers to him her love and the
throne if he kills Almansor. Yet Hüon remains faithful, even though Roschana tries to seduce him with all the tricks she is capable of. Almansor surprises both “unfaithful” and decides to have them executed by burning to death. A stake for the fire is being created when Scherasmin suddenly finds the magic horn and knows that everything will go well.
Rezia tries to change Almansor’s mind but when Almansor hears that Rezia belongs to Hüon, he wants her to die as well. At the moment of the execution, Scherasmin blows the magic horn. Instead of the fire starting, all the slaves begin to dance. With the last signal of the magic horn, Oberon and Titania appear as a reunited couple. Now convinced that two people can remain faithful against all odds, the king of the elves ends the tests for the loving couple. In the closing scene, set in the territory of Franken, the Emperor Karl the Great greets Rezia and Hüon and forgives Hüon for the death of his son.
Irmelin Mai Hoffer
Translation: Tom Zelle – Chicago, 2004
Performance material: Peters, Mainz