Weber’s 1823 “Grand-heroic opera” Euryanthe doesn’t get performed very often. It’s not hard to see why even though Christof Loy’s production for the Theater an der Wien filmed in 2018 has some interesting features.
Let’s start with the plot; which is convoluted. It’s set in the reign of Louis VI of France; reigned 1108-1137, (though the DVD booklet says Louis IV but that makes even less sense). So we are in that early part of the middle ages that seems even more remote than, say, the world of Shakespeare’s history plays. Adolar Count of Nevers has distinguished himself in the recently concluded war and now intends to marry his sweetheart Euryanthe who is universally regarded as the most virtuous of women. Count Lysiart warns him not to trust in the faithfulness of women. The two men are prevented from fighting but make a bet that if Lysiart can seduce Euryanthe he gets Adolar’s land and titles and vice versa. So far, so German opera.
Now it gets convoluted. Adolar’s sister Emma committed suicide after the death of her betrothed in battle. As she’s committed a mortal sin she’s in a sort of limbo which she has revealed (somehow) to Adolar. The only person he has shared the secret with is Euryanthe who he has sworn to secrecy. However while the men were away she has shared the secret with Eglantine who is the daughter of a convicted traitor, in love with Adolar and batshit insane. Lysiart fails to seduce Euryanthe but Eglantine presents him with a ring from Emma’s tomb. This apparently proves that he has seduced Euryanthe. (The law of evidence is a bit vague in medieval German operas and he is believed despite failing to show up on a swan). Lysiart promises to marry Eglantine and goes off to court to do a “gotcha”. Euryanthe refuses to mount a compelling defence because this would involve revealing Emma’s secret.
Lysiart gets the goodies and Adolar goes off with Euryanthe intending to kill her in a remote forest. But a monster shows up and Adolar realises that Euryanthe is still prepared to sacrifice her life to save his so he just abandons her. The king finds her and is convinced of her innocence but she dies anyway. Back at court the wedding preparations are underway but Eglantine goes completely nuts and spills the beans. Lysiart kills her and is led off to execution in turn. Euryanthe then turns up again and falls into Adolar’s arms weeping. Her innocent tears falling on Emma’s ring release her from limbo. As if all that weren’t enough the libretto is in a sort of fake archaic German prefiguring Wagner and the English subs on the disk are from a 19th century translation prepared for the Prince’s Theatre in London. And may all true knights and damsels have joy of it.
Naturally pretty much none of this happens in Loy’s production which takes place in (sort of) modern dress in a big ballroom with a piano and a bed (Acts 1 and 2). In Act 3 there’s nothing in the room but the bed reappears after the “forest” scene. Loy’s interest is in the internal psychological states of the characters and one thing he does do is leave characters hanging around for scenes they have no part in. This reaches it’s apotheosis at the beginning of Act 2 when Lysiart is wandering around stark naked ranting about Euryanthe’s purity while she sleeps in the bed. She then gets up and walks off upstage apparently unaware of the rather nosiy and very naked count. There are other touches too like Eglantine playing the piano at the end of Act 2 in an utterly manic way reminiscent of Looney Tunes. There are some other bits I didn’t really get too. A couple of minor characters are cut but there’s an actress silently playing Louis’ queen. All in all though it works as a staging if you can get past the language and the daft plot which, to be fair, is no dafter than Lohengrin.
This approach puts a lot of the burden of making the drama convincing on the performers. They have to present a psychologically convincing person without much support in the form of showy sets or effects. I think they do this rather well. Stefan Cerny, as the king, has a stonking. bass which helps but it’s his calm air of a man who knows the world is complex and corrupt but that it is his job to navigate it as justly as he can which is so impressive. Tenor Norman Reinhardt creates an Adolar who is only just in balance or control. It’s a good match for the quietly serene, almost doll like, Euryanthe of Jacquelyn Wagner. They both sing beautifully both individually and together. The baddies get the most fun of course and Andrew Foster-Williams as Lysiart manages to be attractive and conniving while avoiding going full on Snidely Whiplash. Bonus points for singing a very difficult aria while stark naked. Theresa Kronthaler seems to revel in the part of Eglantine. Her mad aria is splendidly mad and she just generally does dangerously mad rather well. Her rather striking looks help. She’s the sort of girl one would go after while realising that it was probably not a very good decision!
There’s some pretty good orchestral and vocal writing in this piece. Weber always seems to display an affinity for the woodwinds and that’s very much the case here. The multiple orchestral interludes are pretty high quality and there are some excellent choruses. Musically it’s rather better than the plot deserves. Here the chorus is the ever reliable Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the orchestra is the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Constantin Trinks seems to have the measure of the score and he does get some lovely playing from the orchestra.
The video direction is by Paul Landsmann and I hardly noticed it which is a good thing. The picture on DVD is perfectly OK (Blu-ray is available). The DTS surround track is also very good but the Dolby stereo is a bit indistinct. The booklet has a synopsis (essential!), a detailed track listing and a useful interview with the director. Subtitle options are German, English, French, Korean and Japanese.
For all the silliness of the plot this piece sort of grew on me. Loy does a good job of finding a way to make the characters interesting and the music is pretty decent. It’s maybe not for the casual opera goer but for anyone interested in what German opera before Wagner was like it’s worth a look. It’s certainly at least as interesting as Der Freischutz, Genoveva or Fierrabras.