Opera in three acts. Running Time 2 hours 3 minutes.
Finally, an opera in English! This review is of the sole English-language recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
PLOT: Reign of Charlemagne in fairyland, France, the Middle East. Oberon, king of the fairies, has vowed that until a human couple who can remain faithful to the point of death can be found that he will not be reconciled to his queen, Tatiana. He thinks he has found the couple in the Frankish Sir Huon and the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad, Reiza.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (43 minutes)
0: The overture ** is a very good symphonic piece consisting of several themes from later in the opera. Watch out especially for the horn soundings and the finish.
Scene 1: Fairyland.
12: There is an okay ditty chorus of fairies (including a duet for two soprano and tenor fairies) fearful of awakening their king leading to Oberon’s aria of regret *. Puck goes into this backstory about how Charlemagne charged Sir Huon to kill the man sitting at the right-hand of the Caliph of Baghdad and marry his daughter, Reiza. Oberon gives Huon a horn with which to summon him in a moment of peril.
15: Sir Huon’s vision of Reiza in which she calls for him as she is engaged to the detestable warrior prince Babekhan *.
17: A chorus of fairies leads to a long (six minute) duet between Oberon and Huon in which they take turns followed by Huon and the fairies **.
Scene 2: A road between Oberon’s forest and Baghdad.
24: Huon and his squire Sherasmin argue about the whole promising to kill the man at the right of the caliph thing but Huon restates his knightly honour code but his thoughts quickly turn to love in an extremely long aria ** which gets two stars for how challenging it is, not however for how good it is.
Scene 3: A hall in the palace of the Caliph of Baghdad.
30: The first act finale * starts with Reiza hating Babekhan in an agreeable solo leading to a nice duet with her maid Fatima. Then an off-stage chorus pulls off a mild march, Reiza hovers above hopeful that her knight will come. Alert! Watch out for the last 45 seconds in which the cymbals wake you up briefly before the act fades away.
ACT 2 (41 minutes)
Scene 1: Throne room of the Caliph of Baghdad.
0: A bizarrely semi-atomic chorus starts the act *. Very noise and weird but not otherwise all that interesting. There is a brief inane dance fragment for the harem girls. Huon storms the palace and embraces Reiza and kills Babekhan in single combat. About to be arrested, Huon blows the horn and everyone freezes in place. Oberon arrives congratulating the couple to a striking orchestral interlude. Huon and Shersamin run off with Reiza and Fatima.
Scene 2: Outside the palace on the banks of the Tigris.
6: Fatima expresses her opinion on what has transpired in a sad sounding arriette *.
9: A quartet for the four principles as they set sail for France *.
Scene 3: The shore of a desert island.
12: Oberon has Puck and the other fairies shipwreck * the couples on an island in order to make doubly sure that they are the genuine article. There is a point in which the orchestra reaches force 9 for a sustained period. Huon has also lost the horn.
18: Huon gets an emotive scene accompanied by lower strings *.
21: The climax of the opera: “Ocean, thou mighty monster!” ***. A remarkably great number in an otherwise mundane opera, filled with heavy brass and brooding strings. At the end Reiza flies above it all as she sees a ship and anticipates rescue.
31: But it turns out to be a pirate ship seeking slaves to sell and after Huon is overtaken by them they steal Reiza away. Oberon shows up in yet another patch of orchestral interluding. The nine minute long finale begins with two mermaids taking turns promising some hope to a tune that Mendelssohn stole from Weber for his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. It is very tuneful **, but dramatically this is the most irrelevantly stupid digression outside of Gilbert and Sullivan, and what is worse, it isn’t funny.
ACT 3 (39 minutes)
Scene 1: The palace gardens of the Emir of Tunis.
0: Fatima and Sherasmin have been captured and sold into slavery as well. Fatima gives her orientalist air * (although considering how she is supposed to be an Iraqi is it actually racist when she goes into what is obviously a poor mimic of Muslim prayer?).
3: The Fatima-Sherasmin love duet *, in which they both seem very happy because even though they are both slaves, at least they are together.
9: Huon has been spirited by Puck to Tunis, the three are reunited and the Emir has just bought Reiza. There is an okay if stilted trio *.
Scene 2: The harem.
12: Reiza mourns her pathetic life ** in an aria of great pathos. Why does she seem to get the best music? The Emir offers to free her in exchange for her love, but also refuses to force himself upon her.
18: Huon arrives to a furious aria ** which is an addition to the score and in which he exclaims his happiness upon finding Reiza again.
23: An irrelevent subplot is brought in in the form of the Emiress Roshana who wants Huon to kill her husband for her in exchange for her love. Her handmaidens try unsuccessfully to beguile him in a comparatively modern sounding chorus ** which is interrupted by the brooding but honourable Huon who refuses her.
29: Roshana tries to kill the Emir when he storms in with his troops, she is taken away and he orders Huon to be burned at the stake, giving Reiza an ultimatum to save Huon in exchange for her becoming his new emiress which she refuses but Sherasmin somehow ends up blowing the horn (which he got how?) and freezes the Emir and causes his men to release the lovers **. Oberon comes on once again and promises to transport the lovers to Charlemagne because they have proven themselves and satisfied his vow, thus he is reconciled with Tatiana.
Scene 3: The Court of Charlemagne.
34: Having been transported to Charlemagne, Huon proves himself with Reiza. There is a march ** and the opera ends amid general militant rejoicing.
The plot of this opera is irredeemably stupid. Not only does the work lack structural cohesion, it isn’t even a true opera. If it were not in English it would in fact be a very late singspiel consisting of an overture, twenty-one numbers, and a lot of spoken dialogue that has been thankfully cut from this recording and replaced with a narrator. For the sake of this recording many parts of the story have been completely deleted because they only take place in dialogue, such as Huon’s rescue and confrontation with Babekhan or his encounter with Fatima’s strange grandmother Namouna, both in act one. This is probably a mercy, but it also makes the inanity of the main plot even more apparent.
The opera starts well with the concert-friendly overture followed by a mundane fairy chorus and an explanatory aria from Oberon who then drafts Huon by showing him Reiza in the most Faustian way and then sends him off to Baghdad. On the way our hero gets a song about chivalry and love. The act ends with a dud finale for the prima donna and her maid along with some choral and orchestral banging. The second act starts with the most bizarre chorus followed by a lot of action which occurs in non-musical form followed by an air for the mezzo and a quartet for the four lovers who are then shipwrecked in an okay storm prompting Huon to emote well to some low strings. Reiza then gets her big number which basically saves the show from total oblivion but also demonstrates the glaring difference between itself and everything else in the opera. She is then kidnapped and Oberon comforts Huon with a stupid operetta number involving everything from singing mermaids to King Neptune himself making a silent cameo apperance, thus ending act two. In act three the two minor lovers are both slaves, in the same household as Reiza (how convenient!) and seem very contented which is more than a little creepy. Huon finds them and learns about his lover’s predicament. She is really sad and also being hit on by her employer, however there is one more plot twist: Roshana. What is the point of any of this other than to get rid of the Emir? Musically this is probably the best total scene in the opera but it dramatically doesn’t hold up well. Ultimately it is Sherasmin who saves the day, Huon gets to Charlemagne via Oberon’s intervention, and happy endings all around.
All of this can be very unsettling and one is inclined to call out Oberon as the forbarer of the English junk musical, which it probably is with its inane libretto, mix of dramatically inept and racially insensitive numbers, and a plot that better resembles an acid trip than a fairy tale. And yet, the overture, Reiza’s “Ocean, thou might monster!”, and yes even the second act finale are all musically incredible if not all that dramatically sensible, or sentient for that matter. It must be a C+/B-.