Franz Schubert: Fierrabras (1823)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes.

Another Schubert opera, this time with spoken dialogue (sorry) but written AFTER Alfonso und Estrella. It is also probably better, in spite of the dialogue.

PLOT: France and Spain, c. 800. Emma, the daughter of Charlemagne, is in love with Eginhard. Fierrabras, having previously fallen in love with Emma, is the son of a Moorish king who has been captured by the Franks and is sworn to protect the lovers because the king does not approve after they discover him spying on them. Fierrabras’s sister Florinda is in love with Roland, one of the Frankish knights, and frees Eginhard and attempts to free all of the Franks who are captured (they were sent as part of a peace mission) when their father learns of Fierrabras’ imprisonment by Charlemagne.

ACT 1: (68 minutes)

Scene 1: The Court of Charlemagne.

0: The overture is very long (nine minutes) but also very good **. Schubert improved massively in the year between when he wrote A&E and this.

9: The women’s spinning chorus *** with interjections from Emma. This is absolutely amazing, lilting, just wonderful and somewhat haunting.

15: Emma and Eginhard love duet **. Very tuneful.

19: A chorus of knights followed by the ladies of the court ***. This almost sounds like Verdi.

22: A second chorus, this time both sexes in unison **. This is followed by some strong recitative in which Fierrabras is introduced and there is an interview with Charlemagne. We are also introduced to Roland.

30, 35: Suddenly there is a patch of sunny skies **, Emma comes on and there is a female chorus and then a melodrama in which Fierrabras reveals to Roland that he met and fell in love with Emma in Rome which leads directly into another ensemble** with Emma, the chorus, Roland, and Charlemagne. Fierrabras is actually not a prisoner yet.

38: A reprisal chorus from earlier in the scene with the knights ***. There is a female chorus that dims it down a bit but makes up for itself in the next reprisal of the chorus with the men.

41: The scene ends with a duet for Fierrabras and Roland **.

Scene 2: A Garden.

42.30: The act 1 finale starts here, a beguiling prelude leads to Eginhard’s serenade ** of Emma whose response is equally fine.

48: There is then a bit of agitation in the orchestra (chromaticism?) as Fierrabras spies on the lovers *. Fierrabras’ jealously aria is not as good as the earlier music but it is still good. It is certainly just as lively.

53: The anxiety before Fierrabras reveals himself to the lovers is high drama ** with male chorus, the two lovers, and the protagonist all somewhat oblivious to each other.

55: The discovery, Emma on a coloratura line that will not quite **, the two tenors below her. Fierrabras vows to keep the lover’s secret. Eginhard makes good his escape.

60: Charlemagne arrives and seeing Fierrabras with Emma suspects (wrongly) the worst, namely that he was about to abduct her. This part of the finale has an almost hymn like quality to it and is just amazing ***.

63: Charlemagne rages at Fierrabras ** and orders Roland to place him under arrest. Emma does nothing.

66: The choral finale is good but it isn’t up to the level dramatically of much of the previous music * but it is certainly serviceable.

ACT 2: (45 minutes)

SCENE 1: The Frankish borderlands.

0: Eginhard and Roland lead the knights in a rather lush song **.

7: There is another patch of speech over music, this time much longer than the one in act 1. Then a bit of brass fanfare and we have a lyrical march **.

10: There is a racing chorus as the Franks are taken captive **.

SCENE 2: A hall in the castle of the Moorish King Boland.

11: Transitional music leads directly to Florinda and her servant Maragond, a nice duet  very placid *.

17: Boland greets his daughter, Eginhard is brought in and reveal that Fierrabras is held captive by Charlemagne *.

20.30: The Franks are brought in to a rather lovely chorus *. Roland and Florinda encounter each other.

24: A trio with chorus **. There is some mild chromaticism here.

28: Florinda’s aria **, she does not want the Franks (her lover Roland included) to be killed by her father in revenge for her brother’s imprisonment.

SCENE 3: The Prison of Boland’s castle.

30: A capella knights prisoners chorus *.

33: Florinda attempts to release the Franks to their surprise **.

36: The Roland-Florinda duet of liberty and love **, the knights chime in as well.

44: Trumpet call. There is a battle between the Franks and the Moors (much of it described by Florinda in a speech monologue *), although Eginhard does escape the rest (including Roland) are recaptured and the execution is schedule for the following morning by Boland (much to his daughter’s dismay). There are a series of crashes and it is over.

ACT 3: (30 minutes)

SCENE 1: The Court of Charlemagne

0: In contrast to the previous act, we have a lovely, bright and springy little prelude leading to a happy female chorus *. Emma gets another air totally out of it regarding what has happened to her lover, but the accompaniment to this number is similar in someways to the chorus that started the first act.

4: Charlemagne arrives and Emma changes her tune **.

8: Fierrabras is brought in **. Watch the orchestra here.

9: Eginhard arrives and tells all. The peace party is to be executed because of Fierrabras’ imprisonment. A really great quartet ** which becomes a touching trio between Fierrabras and the now reunited lovers.

SCENE 2: Boland’s castle.

14: Florinda’s aria with male chorus ***. As the knights are about to be led to execution, it is really amazing how effective it is and yet it is so subtle.

17.30: The funeral march *, some more dialogue.

20: The execution chorus **. Florinda really does not these executions to take place, Boland tells her that if she really can’t live without Roland that she can die with him.

23: The chorus of Franks at this point is really good **.

25: Fanfare of trumpets, Fierrabras tells his father to cancel the executions, he is home and safe. Boland agrees and calls off the executions, everyone is happy **

28: General happiness from all as Fierrabras becomes one of Charlemagne’s knights, and a sextet with chorus closes the opera **.

Fierrabras is as good an opera as Alfonso und Estrella is a dull one. It is remarkable how quickly Schubert’s skill in writing opera progressed so rapidly. It is an imbalanced work, the first act is almost half the length of the entire opera (which is in 3 acts). Much of the very best music is to be found strangely in this act. The title character, although sung by a tenor, is hardly the romantic lead (that would be the other tenor Eginhard), in fact he doesn’t end up with any woman at all and instead is inducted into the all-male society of the Frankish knights albeit now with one of them his brother-in-law. He also isn’t on stage very much. His sister Florinda, although we do not meet her until half-way through the opera, is a much stronger character than Emma. The fact that both Fierrabras meets Emma and Florinda meets Roland in Rome initially is a little incredible but within operatic convention does not take too much logic work. Thankfully, the spiel is kept to a minimum and when it does occur it is mostly in the form of orchestrally accompanied melodrama. There are some parallels in the score, the first and last acts start in essentially the same way. I’ve just read that La Scala is planning a production of this opera in June 2018, perhaps this will bring the work into prominence. I included the La Scala advert as the featured image for that reason. I think that there is a possibility to claim that this is the best German-language opera written between  Zauberflote  and  Hollander, and I think I can say without any doubt that it is the best German opera written between Freischutz and Hollander. It does not suffer from the low points of the domestic first half-hour of Beethoven’s Fidelio nor the over-indulgence of spiel and the incredulous supernatural hokum found in Freischutz. Perhaps starting in 2018 this opera will become the exemplar of pre-Wagnerian German opera in all the history books and Schubert will finally take his place as if not a great opera composer, at least a one-hit wonder on the level of Beethoven or Weber. A-/A.







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