Notes and Editorial Reviews
Euryanthe has been the least performed and recorded of the great operas; Toscanini led its last performance at the Met in 1915. The music is enchanting; we all know its glorious melodies from the marvelous overture, and there are many more in the opera. Yet, until recently, there was only one commercial recording, a 1974 production led by Marek Janowski that appeared on EMI and then on Berlin Classics. Two other historical live performances, from 1949 (von Zallinger) and 1954 (Giulini), are now on CD, and there is a recent CD/DVD issue on Dynamic with a no-name cast led by Gerard Korsten. It’s hard to say just what is wrong with Euryanthe; it may lack the dramatic punch of Der Freischütz, but it is at least a coherent drama, which the
more-popular Oberon is not. Although arias and duets are often preceded by recitatives (tracked separately in this issue), much of Euryanthe is through composed, with scenes of seamlessly welded solos, ensembles, and choruses. Wagner was intensely interested in this opera, which even hints at Leitmotifs.
The front page of the booklet trumpets: “Newly remastered using state-of-the-art restoration techniques.” If that’s true—and it may be—the source must have been a disaster. The opening phrase is bright and alive, but the following woodwind passages are garbled and watery; there is also a dead spot in the overture. Things get better as the opera proceeds; vocal/orchestral balances are excellent, and everything can be heard. This performance took place at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio for broadcast on BBC3, so there are no stage noises, clomping feet, or fading in and out as singers move around. Despite the clarity, the well-miked balances, and an overall freshness, this amateurish recording is over-modulated; voices blast and instruments screech at high dynamic levels, while some pianissimo passages are barely audible. It’s a shame we can’t hear it from the Beeb’s own source.
There is good reason to put up with the sonic problems, however; this is as fine a performance as one can hear. I was pleased with the EMI CDs in Fanfare 14:2—the opera was more coherent with one CD for each of its three acts than it had been on eight noisy Angel LP sides, and there was no competition then. But Marek Janowski’s conducting is a bit square and stiff; Fritz Stiedry’s reading is far more supple, dancing and flowing smoothly along. He knows how to support vocalists and how to hold them together; ensemble work is first-class, and the musical pulse never falters. In the title role, a young, not-yet-ready-for–prime-time Joan Sutherland (she had just been promoted to lead roles at Covent Garden, singing Agathe in Der Freischütz in 1954) sounds very much the ingénue, which is not inappropriate for this convent-raised orphan. But an equally young Jessye Norman steals the Janowski show, her coloratura nearly as well produced as Sutherland’s and her voice pure and strong. The role of Adolar is no more difficult than Max in Der Freischütz and less so than Hüon in Oberon, but it seems to give tenors fits; Franz Vroons has an undistinguished voice but sings decently; Janowski’s Nicolai Gedda—late in his career—strains mightily, to little effect. The lead couple is dramatically vapid (one reason, perhaps, for this opera’s lack of success), leaving the villains to provide most of the color. Rita Hunter and Tom Krause did well for Janowski, but Marianne Schech and Otokar Kraus are magnificent as the envious would-be lovers of Adolar and Euryanthe.
So how did we get from four LPs or three CDs down to two? This production runs 31 minutes less than the Janowski. The Solemn Dance is missing from act I; while it sets the scene (in the King’s palace), it is the least interesting music of the opera, especially coming soon after the glorious overture. Act II is uncut, but act III is chopped up. The serpent episode is deleted (“Full moon. A barren ravine, ringed with thick scrub. A steep path leads down from a crag.” Sound familiar?), along with several brief choruses. The major, inexplicable gap is the absence of Euryanthe’s great aria, “Schirmender Engel Schar.” It would seem to be an ideal vehicle for Sutherland, but it’s not on these discs. Norman nails it in the Janowski performance. A final 10 minutes of the difference comes from slightly faster tempos and the skipping of a few phrase repeats.
Andromeda’s production values are not high. There is no libretto; one folded sheet consists of the cast listing (a minor solo role, Bertha, goes uncredited) and details of the 35 tracks. Both the EMI and Berlin Classic editions of the Janowski are still available, but they each cost well over $40 at Arkivmuisc.com, which has this Andromeda set for a mere $12.
Every serious record collector should have a recording of Euryanthe. I’ve not heard or seen the Dynamic recording. Because of the cuts and the sometimes-distorted mono sound of this issue, the Janowski is a safer overall recommendation, but I prefer Stiedry for my own listening. If you have any tolerance for historical recordings, go for this Andromeda set.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Euryanthe, J 291/Op. 81 by Carl Maria von Weber
Otakar Kraus (Baritone),
Franz Vroons (Tenor),
Marianne Schech (Soprano),
Dame Joan Sutherland (Soprano),
Kurt Böhme (Bass)
BBC Symphony Orchestra,
Written: 1822-1823; Dresden, Germany
Date of Recording: 1955
Venue: Live London, England
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