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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Opera Review: A Girl with a Bad Reputation

Bard SummerScape presents Euryanthe.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hand jive: Euryanthe (Ellie Dehn) and Eglantine (Wendy Bryn Harmer) face off in
a scene from Weber's romantic opera Euryanthe. Photo by Cory Weaver © 2014 Bard SummerScape.
Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe has finally beaten the odds.

The opera, which is running at the Bard Festival as part of that institution's SummerScape series, has overcome a bad libretto, a hard-to-pronounce title (it's "Oy-ree-an-theh") and consignment to the yawning void reserved for German romantic operas that were written before the rise of Richard Wagner. These performances, conducted by Bard president Leon Botstein at the helm of the American Symphony Orchestra mark the first fully staged performances of the opera in the U.S. since a brief run at the Met in the 1914-15 season.

Weber was one of the most important German composers in the era between Beethoven and Wagner. Today he is remembered today for three works: his Clarinet Concerto, the Invitation to the Dance and the opera Der Freischütz, long cited as the missing link between singspiel and the early operas of Richard Wagner. Euryanthe moves further along the road to Wagnerism, ditching the spoken dialogue of Freischütz for through-composed recitatives accompanied by the full orchestra.

The descent of Euryanthe into operatic obscurity was hastened by its libretto, a concoction by the playwright Helmina von Chézny. Following this couple through a series of twists, turns and derring-do, the story throws ghosts, serpents, conspiracies and curses at the audience in a way that makes the head swim. Some of the plot points and key moments seemed all-too-familiar, they were appropriated by Wagner for Lohengrin and certain sequences in the Ring.

At the Wednesday matinee, soprano Ellie Dehn impressed with a full upper register and a sweet tone, conveying Euryanthe's innocence in the face of the machinations of the plot. However, innocence is not the most interesting emotion for an actress, and Ms. Dehn struggled to bring depth to this poorly written character. As her ardent fiancee Adolar, tenor William Burden sang with a bright ring in his voice although he sounded at times like he was having problems with his costume: which bound his leg in a Victorian-era orthotic brace.

No such support was needed for Wendy Bryn Harmer, who stunned and nearly stole the opera as the villainous Eglantine. this is the opera's meatiest role, a prototype for Ortrud in Lohengrin. (Indeed, one wonders if the obscurity of Euryanthe has something to do with the cult of Wagner following that composer's death.) In her Act II duet with Lysiart (Ryan Kuster) Ms. Harmer caught fire with a potent soprano that sliced and cut with a keen edge.

This performance may be a breakout for Mr. Kuster, who sang Lysiart with a bold, black-toned baritone. His is an impressive voice, capable of uttering dastardly words while having the stage presence and flair of a star on the rise. In the role of King Ludwig, bass Peter Volpe has little to do except preside over the opera's unspooling plot, but he sang with resonance and some beautifully colored bass notes.

Director Kevin Newbury and set designer Victoria Tzykun updated this opera to the Victorian era, evoking the ghost stories of the Brontë sisters with dim lighting and the constantly wandering ghost of Anne, Adolar's sister. Her suicide (by poison and knife) on a wrought iron bed, took place during the opera's sweeping overture and set the labyrinthine plot in motion. (As the action started, servants quickly changed the sheets and wheeled the bed offstage.) Her tomb was a pair of trap doors built into the stage, which served to condense the number of locations needed for the sprawling plot.

To accomodate the opera's scene changes, cadres of smartly dressed choristers would march on and off the stage in taut, almost drilled formations and trading places with the wrought-iron bed that was the location of Anne's suicide. (Weber's use of the chorus is also something that Wagner would copy in Lohengrin.)  Mr. Newbury made some questionable choices in the climactic third act, where the serpent attack was depicted by a giant, slowly descending root ball belonging to a huge tree that floated majestically above the stage. Tenor and soprano attempted not too look too ridiculous during this battle, but luckily their voices won the day.

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