Notes and Editorial Reviews
Franz Schubert was a prolific composer, perhaps best known for his symphonies and chamber music, but he also turned his hand to Romantic opera. Despite having no experience of seeing his theatrical works performed on stage, Schubert's enthusiasm for the genre was not dampened. In 1821, in close collaboration with librettist Franz von Schober, the composer began work on Alfonso und Estrella. He would never see the opera performed during his lifetime, and although it was premiered by Franz Lizst in Weimar in 1854, the work -- criticised for its lack of dramatic action -- would never make it into the core repertoire.
While the opera would not necessarily triumph onstage from a dramatic point of view, a recording is the perfect
medium in which to revel in the charming lyricism of the work. This special recording from 1978 brought the opera out of neglect, boasting an impressive list of singers. Schreier is praised for his 'elegant tones and graceful phrasing' (Gramophone) in the role of Alfonso, and Mathis brings warmth and sensitivity to the role of Estrella. The cast list also boasts internationally acclaimed baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose duet with Herman Prey -- in which their voices unite 'in consummate artistry' (Gramophone)-- is undoubtedly a highlight of the recording.
- This 1978 recording is the first issue of the opera, presenting the strongest cast possible: Edith Mathis, Hermann Prey, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Eberhard Büchner, Theo Adam, voices in their full glory and bloom, expertly supported by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Otmar Suitner.
- During his whole (short) life Franz Schubert tried to gain public success by writing operas in the then popular Italian style of Rossini. Sadly his breakthrough never came, and his operas, many of which were not completed, were never performed during his lifetime.
- Alfonso und Estrella contains vintage Schubert: lyricism, charm, and his godly melodic gift, more than compensating a certain lack of dramatic action.
- Contains liner notes and synopsis.
- Libretti available at www.brilliantclassics.com.
R E V I E W: 3752860.az_SCHUBERT_Alfonso_Estrella_Otmar.html
SCHUBERT Alfonso und Estrella • Otmar Suitmer, cond; Edith Mathis (Estrella); Peter Schreier (Alsonso); Theo Adam (Adolfo); Hermann Prey (Mauregato); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Froila); Magdalena Falewicz (A Maiden); Eberhard Büchner (A Youth); Berlin R Ch; Berlin St O • BRILLIANT 94689 (3 CDs: 162:37)
This 1978 recording of Schubert’s finest opera, sans libretto, is a revelation and godsend to those who love this composer’s music but don’t have or have never heard this work. (I fell into both categories.) Written without a commission in 1821–22 to a relatively standard and uninteresting libretto by Franz von Schober, Alfonso und Estrella was intended to depart from then-current operatic styles. Schubert had been sorely disappointed by the tame and uninteresting music of Weber’s Euryanthe, and thus wanted to write something different. He surely did. From the very first notes of the overture, one feels much more in the presence of Beethoven or Gluck than of Schubert, and the high creative level of the overture continues throughout the opera. Ironically, only the overture was ever performed in his lifetime, in the same concert as the premiere of the incidental music to Rosamunde, which is not half as dramatic as this opera. The reason for this was that both Schubert and his influential friends were angry at Domenico Barbaja, director of both court theaters in Vienna, who played it safe by staging lots of Rossini and other pop-type operas. When Alfonso und Estrella was offered to Dresden, its performance was sabotaged by none other than Weber, who had heard of Schubert’s disdain for Euryanthe and so refused to back it. And even in later, supposedly more enlightened times, it has rarely been mounted due to its staid libretto. I’ve been told that the late George Jellinek, speaking to a group of opera lovers during the bicentennial year of Schubert’s birth (when the opera was performed in Vienna with Olaf Bär and Luba Orgoná?ová, conducted by Harnoncourt), said that although Alfonso und Estrella was the best of his operas, it was not very involving.
But people can be wrong, even George Jellinek. Alfonso und Estrella has been cut, rewritten, rearranged, and mangled more than almost any other opera by a major composer in history. Its first performance, at Weimar in 1854, came via the good graces of Liszt, who did so out of respect for the composer rather than any enthusiasm for the score. In fact, Liszt initially considered an entirely new libretto but eventually settled on just chopping large bits out of the music, particularly the sung dialogue which was its principal innovation. The next version to be staged came in 1881, cut even more heavily by Johann Fuchs who added his own text and music as well as words and music from other sources (as per the liner notes). Neither the British premiere of 1977 nor the Vienna production of 1997 were complete. This recording, then, is the only authentic and complete performance of the opera. It was initially recorded for the East German company VEB Deutsche Schallplatten but issued commercially on LPs by EMI. Its previous CD release came out on Berlin Classics 21562BC.
Despite the rather stock and staid libretto—which, by the way, Schubert did not accept begrudgingly but enthusiastically embraced during its composition—I found Alfonso und Estrella entirely engaging, from start to finish. It struck me as one of those works, like Verdi’s Il trovatore, where the excellence of the music carries the story far better than the words being sung. Not that Alfonso is written in anything like the musical style of Verdi; the influence of Beethoven, Gluck, and even Spontini is very strong in this work. The sung recitatives are all brief and orchestrally accompanied. The music within each act develops almost symphonically; sometimes what sounds like an aria or a duet is the beginning of a concerted passage that develops exponentially into a long scene, constructed with exceptional skill. Time and again, I found myself brought up short by the surprising subtlety of his harmonic modulations, something generally evident in his chamber works and piano sonatas but not always in his songs or symphonies. Although most of the long scenes, such as the Alfonso-Froila duet in act I (“Geschmückt von Glanz und Siegen”) are obviously momentum-stoppers (meaning that nothing dramatic is going on, that the singers have stopped moving to sing), they could easily be imagined as part of one of his chamber works. Does this make it good music but bad opera? That’s certainly your call, not mine, but purely as music it’s fascinating and continually engaging. Even the choral writing, certainly a department in which you never think of Schubert as a rule, is well written and knitted into the overall musical texture.
The story depicts Froila, deposed king of Leon, living a secluded life in a valley whose residents let him “rule” them. After 20 years they ask Froila to pick a successor, so he chooses his son Alfonso (who doesn’t even know he is of royal descent), who rebels against the peace and quiet, wanting to go out into the world and do great things. Meanwhile the current King of Leon, Mauregato, is preparing to go hunting when his general, Adolfo, arrives after a successful victory over the Moors and asks for the hand of his daughter, Estrella, in marriage. She rejects him, goes hunting with dad, gets separated from them, and runs into Alfonso with whom she immediately falls in love. Alfonso meets with traitors who wish to overthrow King Mauregato, who meanwhile laments his missing daughter. The latter suddenly arrives with a necklace, given her by Alfonso; their reunion is interrupted by the arrival of the traitors, against whom Mauregato’s solders storm into battle. But Adolfo wins, tries once again to force himself on Estrella (whom he has captured), even threatening to stab her (what a great date he is, huh?). Alfonso saves the day and Estrella, has Adolfo arrested, then summons his dad Froila (remember Froila?) and his warriors with his horn. Froila isn’t too crazy about helping Mauregato, but does it anyway because his son loves Estrella. Happily, Mauregato and Froila are reconciled, Estrella comes back home, Alfonso announces his victory and marries Estrella. To cement this all-too-happy ending, they even pardon Adolfo.
Perhaps one reason I responded so well to this excellent score was the startlingly dramatic conducting of Otmar Suitner. I never really paid that much attention to Suitner or thought that highly of him (though I did think him a fine musician), but his intensely dramatic leadership in this recording makes the difference between ennui and involvement. I was also rather surprised by the singing of two principals: Fischer-Dieskau, whom I’ve always liked, and Adam, whom I always felt to be wobbly and vocally out of control. Their contributions on this set are almost the opposite of what I expected. Fischer-Dieskau, quite obviously in poor voice, struggles to maintain control in his music, a great deal of which lies very high in tessitura and is often florid, whereas Adam, lessening his breath pressure (this is, after all, a lyric role and not Wotan), sounds wonderful. You could have knocked me over with a feather, as they say. Edith Mathis is her usual excellent self (I always though much more highly of her than her soubrette counterpart of the time, Helen Donath), Peter Schreier has seldom sounded better, and the two subsidiary singers (Falewicz as a maiden and Büchner as a youth), who get a surprising amount of music to sing (particularly in act I) are absolutely splendid. Needless to say, Hermann Prey is Hermann Prey: a lovely and elegant vocal presence, not the strongest of character singers but ever and anon a pleasure to hear. True, the Estrella-Alfonso duets are essentially sweetsy-cutesy pieces of their time, but Schubert maintains interest via his continually shifting rhythms and the evolving development of form that in some ways prefigures Wagner.
As usual with most budget issues nowadays (and even non-budget sets), there is no libretto included. It’s available online, but believe me, it’s well hidden on the Brilliant Classics web site. I only found it by Googling “libretto for Schubert Alfonso und Estrella” and going to the second page of hits: brilliantclassics.com/release.aspx?id=FM00081767. A purchase well worth making, particularly if you are a fan of the dramatic school of opera that ran concurrently in those years with the “bel canto boys.”
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Alfonso und Estrella, D 732 by Franz Schubert
Theo Adam (Bass),
Hermann Prey (Baritone),
Edith Mathis (Soprano),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone),
Peter Schreier (Tenor),
Magdalena Falewicz (Soprano),
Eberhard Büchner (Tenor),
Horst Gebhardt (Tenor),
Claudia Graswurm (Alto),
Joachim Vogt (Tenor)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra,
Berlin Radio Chorus
Written: 1821; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 02/01/1978
Venue: Live Christuskirche, Berlin, Germany
Length: 162 Minutes 44 Secs.
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