Franz Schubert: Alfonso und Estrella (1822)

Opera in 3 Acts. Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes.

This is Schubert’s first through-composed opera, and thus probably the first German opera (rather than Singspiel) written in a style which we can not classify as operetta today. I figured that I haven’t done a single German opera at all yet, partially because I’m not as fond of the German language when sung as say French, Italian, Czech, or Russian. So I thought I would start with the first German opera that has no spoken dialogue.

PLOT: Northern Spain, the middle ages. Alfonso is the son of the deposed king of Leon, Froila, and Estrella is the daughter of Mauregato, the general who deposed Froila’s throne and took power for himself. Adolfo is in love with Estrella but Mauregato tells him that only the man who possesses the “chain of Eurich” may marry his daughter. Adolfo plots a coup against Mauregato in revenge and Estrella and Alfonso meet when she gets lost during a hunting party. You can guess who possesses the chain and lives happily ever after.

ACT 1: (58 minutes)

Scene 1: The porch and a room of Froila’s home in exile.

10: The overture is six minutes of brooding and banging, it never really goes anywhere. The chorus that follows starts off depressingly and is dreary to say the least. It picks up, but there is an eery mood settling on the opera as we meet Froila *. A chorus of peasants comes and greets Froila with their produce. A young couple, asking his permission to wed, engage the ex-king in a trio. Froila entrusts the family jewels (so to speak) to Alfonso in recitative (albeit full on orchestrally accompanied recitative), then we have a repeat of the chorus which is becoming slightly annoying.

21: Left alone, father and son have a duet to an underlining dancing melody *.

26: Schubert has this habit of having arias within duets, but then dividing what would otherwise be a single number into multiple sequences of duets sandwiching arias. The first of these is for Alfonso and it is okay * but the orchestra is very ornery here, what is good about it sounds a lot like Zauberflote. The second half of the duet has a dramatic propellant but not much more and it is rather short, but there is one important point here: Froila gives Alfonso the Chain of Eurich.

Scene 2: A room in Mauregato’s castle.

34: Women’s hunting chorus *. This leads directly into an aria for Estrella which tries desperately to be tuneful, it only half succeeds, again with choral backing saving much of the situation.

38: Adolfo arrives and with him comes more adult-sounding music, even a chromatic bit, a lot about blood *, all very brassy. You will be surprised at this point as we get into the Adolfo-Estrella duet as you realize you are more than forty minutes into this thing and although the music isn’t that great, it has flown by quickly enough. Another thing is that you keep on wanting there to be spoken dialogue, the numbers so far have come off as Singspiel bits without the spiel parts.

46, 53, 56: The finale * is twelve minutes long and the best music so far. Adolfo asks for Estrella’s hand from Mauregato (she isn’t interested rather tunefully **). When daddy comes it the situation becomes more tedious, Adolfo is a better accompaniment. Mauregato gives Adolfo the let down ** and then the last two minutes consist of Adolfo plotting, Estrella relieved and prepping to go on a hunting party, and Mauregato in the middle as the male and female chorus members split by gender and try to out do each other.

ACT 2: (44 minutes)

Scene 1 Rural tableau. (30 minutes)

2: Something of a spell falls during the brief (too brief) prelude to this act and we are quickly back into a recitative with Alfonso and Froila but the nice harp/flute/strings bit comes back for Froila’s aria ** and eventually starts to sound just a little like a waltz. This is really good. There is some recitative by Alfonso that follows but never becomes a real number.

12, 16, 19, 22: Estrella comes on lost in a panic and Alfonso finds her and addresses her to a melody that sounds terribly Johann Strauss * or at least I think it was later used in a German operetta, maybe Lehar. Alfonso declares his love rather ardently ** considering that he has just met Estrella. Her response is a trilly little ditty *. When he gives her the Chord the music starts to race just a little before he runs off.

Scene 2: A dark place.

24: The entire scene (about five minutes) consists of a male chorus, a screaming violin, and Adolfo plotting a coup. Menacing, but possibly in a very bad way. No star.

Scene 3: A room in the Castle, Leon.

31: Maregato is filled with fatherly fear that his daughter is in danger *.

34: Luckily she shows up rather quickly *. He realizes that she has a necklace, he touches it and realizes that it is the Chord that he has been waiting for.

38: Estrella tells how she got it (which of course we already know) and that she is in love with this young man (which we also already know), but daddy didn’t know *.

39: In the last four minutes of the act a soldier arrives regarding the coup. What follows should be more interesting than it is (cymbals after all!) * as everyone arms themselves.

ACT 3: (30 minutes)

Scene: A ruined room in Maregato’s castle.

0: An orchestral introduction *, stormy, begins the act, probably depicting the battle between the forces of Maregato and Adolfo.

2: There is a rather good battle clearing duet between the unnamed tenor and soprano from act 1 **, in spite of the Mozart-bits there is a sense of battle terror here that makes a stronger argument than much of the previous music. This is taken up by the chorus.

3: Adolfo stops Estrella **. He declares that he loves her and is going to take her away.

6: Alfonso arrives and disarms Adolfo. What follows is a long duet between the two principles **.  There is a patch of recitative but otherwise it is pretty good. Estrella reveals who she is and Alfonso is a little mortified. After some more duetting there is a racing chorus and then quiet. The chorus comes back, a different melody, both on and off stage. Froila shows up and finds out who Estrella is.

18: Maregato’s aria *, not what you were expecting from Froila’s arrival.

21: The Froila-Maregato reconciliation duet **.

23: Estrella returns to start the first of two parts of the finale ** in which everyone comes on board. First male chorus, Alfonso arrives and acknowledges Maregato who admits that Froila is the rightful king, who in turn hands power over to the young couple. The two families are united and peace returns to Leon. The End.

There are pluses and minuses with this opera, all of which are glaring. Some of the music, such as Froila’s act 2 aria and much of the third act is very good, but never does the opera rise above that level. The plot is really a love triangle complicated by the existences of the fathers of the hero and heroine. Otherwise, it would be possible to tell the story as just a rather stereotypical tenor/soprano/bass triangle with Estrella already as a young queen succeeding her father, Adolfo as a rejected suitor who plots a coup after being rejected by her, and Alfonso the young rightful heir with evidence to prove it who comes to the lady’s rescue. The music frequently and uncomfortably gives one the impression that you are in a Singspiel and you keep waiting for the spiel! The opera also seems difficult to stage and the story just limps along through the 34 (count them!) numbers that make up the work. However, the part of the opera with the greatest longueurs, act 1, is also the least slow for some odd reason (even though the overture and opening chorus are rather dim). The opera also shows obvious signs of being a transitional work with bits sounding of Mozart, Beethoven, or Weber put up against bits that sound like Strauss or Lehar.  B-.

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