Grosse Romantische Oper im drei Akten. Running Time: 2 hours 53 minutes.
Betting on a woman’s virtue is never a good idea in any opera, but in this 1823 German opera, it proves almost lethal. Euryanthe is essentially the opera that Wagner’s Lohengrin is based on in musical terms. Musically it is considered to be great, but the libretto is one of the worst in the history of the art form. It is also considered too long and confusing.
At the suggestion of OperaScribe I have changed the review to the 1974 EMI studio recording with Jessye Norman, Nicolai Gedda, Tom Kraus, and Rita Hunter conducted by Marek Janowski. I’m really not sure if any cuts were made to the live performance I also reviewed, so the extra ten minutes could just be conducting speed.
SETTING: Prémery and Nevers, France, 1110. Count Adolar de Nevers (tenor) makes a Cymberline-esque bet with Lysiart, Count de Forest (baritone), that the latter cannot seduce his faithful fiancee Euryanthe (soprano). Eglantine de Puiset (soprano) is also in love with Adolar and plots with Lysiart to destroy Euryanthe after the latter reveals a grave secret concerning the suicide of Adolar’s sister (it involves a ring and the tears of a wronged maiden). Eglantine plants circumstantial evidence against Euryanthe and Adolar gives up all his property to Lysiart. Euryanthe convinces King Louis VI (bass) of her innocence and the couple is eventually reunited.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (65 minutes)
0: The overture *** is probably the best and certainly the most famous section of the opera. It consists of a series of tunes from the opera. It starts with a flourish and then the first statement of the “Euryanthe” theme which will pop up in Adolar’s vocal line from time to time. This is the best tune in the entire opera. The rest consists of various shifts from mild angst, to placid charm, to a sort of melancholy (the ghost theme). In the last three minutes it turns a bit more excited, the flourish reappears.
Scene 1: A hall in the castle of King Louis of France at Premery.
11: Dem Frieden Heil! After a cheerful orchestral curtain riser, the opening betrothal chorus at first just the women rather dully, then the men arrive * and they sing collective praises of the not present Euryanthe. A lively four minute dance to the same tune follows.
18: Unter blüh’nden Mandelbäumen Adolar’s song * about the purity and beauty of Euryanthe. I actually found this irritating at first, and I love Nicolai Gedda, but it does improve with the second and third verses. The chorus eventually comes in with an unrelated number.
28: Ich bau’ auf Gott The bet itself occurs over a long and rather unexciting recitative and trio, eventually the chorus of male courtiers gets in on things and it improves somewhat but it is only with Adolar’s farewell bout of confidence in his betrothed that things even remotely get interesting musically with a bold statement “Euryanthe” theme from the overture **. Thankfully it does recur from time to time, although perhaps not frequently enough. I want to grab hold of it because the rest bores me so.
Scene 2: Euryanthe’s castle at Nevers.
33: Glöcklein im Thale After a dreamy interlude, Euryanthe’s first aria **.
44: Am letzten Mai After much dialogue between Euryanthe and Eglantine (including a mild aria from the latter which didn’t impress me at all, in fact the first time I heard it I didn’t even realize it was an aria, I had to look at the numbers listing!), Euryanthe tells the tale ** (ghost music from the overture appears): Emma, Adolar’s sister, committed suicide following the death of her knight lover by drinking poison from a ring. Emma soul can find no rest until the tears of a wronged and innocence maiden moisten the ring at her tomb. She recounts all of this in a recitative that is more lively than the sedate duet that immediately follows with Eglantine.
53: Er konnte mich Eglantine reveals her evil intentions in a furious aria which at least ends with some good vocal work *.
61: Fröhliche Klänge First Finale: Villagers come on for a song and dance sequence lasting about five minutes, Euryanthe welcomes Lysiart and the act ends with a sotto voce ensemble for the three principles plus the tertiary soprano-tenor couple Bertha and Rudolf and the chorus *. If there were a number I would either seriously modify or cut in order to combine the first two acts, it would be this one, I find it inept.
ACT 2: (45 minutes)
Scene 1: The same.
2: Schweigt, glüh’nden Sehnens Furious preluding, thunder storming, effective, leading to an equally furious recitative for Lysiart *. He thinks he will lose the bet, Euryanthe isn’t remotely interested in him.
7: So weih’ ich mich Suddenly we end up in whirlwind as Lysiart expresses his guilty passion for Euryanthe in a very good aria **.
13: Komm denn Eglantine comes on having stolen the ring from Emma’s tomb. She gives it to Lysiart and tells him Emma’s story. He proposes marriage to her out of thanks. At least this duet is more energetic **.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.
19: Sie ist mir nah! A nice tenor aria for Adolar ** as he suffers an anxiety attack but also thinks longly of Euryanthe.
24: Hin nimm die Seele The first Euryanthe-Adolar duet **, not very long at all (all of two and a half minutes), but a nice tune.
27, 32, 37, 42: Leuchtend füllt die Königshallen/Komm an mein Herz!/Laß mich empor zum/Weh! das Mass The act eighteen minute finale has four very good passages: 1) the start with a gentle male chorus of courtiers with a gorgeous descant in the first violins **. Lysiart arrives and is about to present the ring and recount the story of Emma (claiming Euryanthe told him) 2) when Adolar breaks into the “Euryanthe” theme once more **. Lysiart presents the ring and tells the entire court that Adolar’s sister was a suicide. Euryanthe strongly protests having told Lysiart, which we know is true, she told Eglantine. Adolar rejects her but 3) she comes back in a nice passage ** which turns into a ensemble with the three men. Lysiart is knighted by the King and officially given all of Adolar’s properties as winner of the bet. The stretta finale expresses only utterly sorrow, even on the part of Lysiart. The orchestration is extremely lite, the male chorus a little dull, until 4) finally Euryanthe collapses and she is condemned by the furious courtiers **. Adolar drags her off to kill her in some barren place.
ACT 3: (63 minutes)
Scene 1: A rocky gorge.
0: The entr’acte *, utter gloom settles on the opera.
4, 8: Dies ist der Ort/Entsetzen! Adolar finally speaks * after a long and boring recitative from Euryanthe. He threatens to kill her and then commit suicide, but she protests her innocence. There is a lyrical patter passage * before they meet up with the snake. This is just stupid, and mostly consists of an aria passage for Euryanthe while the tenor is backstage “fighting” the reptile. Because of her bravery over the snake thing, Adolar decides not to kill her but rather leave her alone to fall prey to the elements. Oddly enough, even though this entire section is rather dull, one can see where Wagner got his inspiration here. Along with the aria for Euryanthe that follows, this is the most proto-wagnerian scene in the score.
16: So bin ich nun verlassen Alone, Euryanthe reflects on her life ** and waits for death. It is at times extremely sedate, but unlike the other quiet passages, this one has an attractive pathetic quality to it that makes it rather effective. Either that or Jessye Norman is just awesome and can even make lifeless crap sound great!
24, 28: Die Thale dampfen/Eglantines flehend Kosen Suddenly, something actually rather great for a change ***, as the King and the courtiers show up while on a hunt (so soon after the action of the previous act?) and come upon the exhausted Euryanthe. Apart from the overture, this is the best music in the entire opera. They wake her up and she recounts the whole story of how Eglantine betrayed her **. She passes out again after going on about trying to find Adolar and the courtiers carry her back to the palace.
Scene 2: The Hall in the Palace at Nevers.
34: More upbeat music at least * as we head into six minutes of classical ballet. Of the three ballet sequences, this is the best, although it is also irrelevant.
40, 49, 52, 59: Der Mai bringt frische/Ich kann nicht weiter!/Trotze nicht/Hin nimm die Seele Eglantine is about to be married to Lysiart and the otherwise meaningless Bertha sings happily * until Adolar arrives dressed in black armour with his visor down planning to kill himself to a furious solo con coro (not an aria, it is less than a minute). He decides to challenge Lysiart who arrives to a weird march tune. Eglantine’s entrance and collapse of guilt is more annoying than dramatically effective. She is still in love with Adolar and feels totally guilty about her betrayal of Euryanthe. The duel is a furious affair with the chorus chugging their nut * before the King arrives and puts a stop to everything, including what was actually amounting to a real pick up in the score. He tells Adolar that Euryanthe is dead which prompts Eglantine to rejoice and give away Lysiart’s entire plot which triggers him to murder her in front of everyone. This comes off as stupidity. He is taken away and Adolar is left to mourn Euryanthe who shows up just moments later and Adolar is reinstated *. The ring has been moistened with her tears so Emma’s soul is at rest. A starchy chorus praising Adolar and Euryanthe ends the opera.
This opera is mostly characterized by a sense of calmness (the proto-type for Lohengrin?) which can make the recitatives and numbers blur into each other. I had difficulty at times distinguishing between what was actually a number (Eglantine’s arias and her duet with Euryanthe) from recitative (Euryanthe’s recitation of Emma’s suicide). I still hold that this should be a two-act opera with the first two combined with cuts made to the ballets and the first act finale. The second act is of a far higher quality than the body of the first act (ignore the amazing overture, I mean the individual numbers of the first act), but the third act contains most of bad elements in the libretto, and the music is sub-par, especially the final scene which suffers from being both musically uninteresting and dramatically poorly paced and confusing. Apart from the first act finale, however, the boring bits are concentrated in the third act, which might be why critics find the whole opera boring since this is the final impression left by Euryanthe. These portions of the score are sometimes very forward looking (they are literally the proto-type for Wagnerian music drama) but being so experimental, they are also incredibly dull. It is easy to spot where Wagner and Liszt (among others) would later imitate and build on this score but also equally where Weber himself made the pun that Euryanthe would be found to be more properly titled Ennuyante.
Now that I’ve complained, I will discuss what is actually good about this opera. The overture is magnificent and begins with a single absolutely amazing melody “Euryanthe” which really should have been reused more than the two times it shows up in Adolar’s vocal line. Euryanthe’s recitation of Emma’s suicide (and the ghost theme) are also very well done. Most of the second act is very good, nothing magnificent, but it is consistently good from start to finish unlike the other two. The third act has the hunting chorus, which is the single best vocal piece in the score.
The core of the opera is a masterpiece, but it is saddled with too much mindless junk, (ballets, the snake, the gratuitous murder of Eglantine) as well as Weber being experimental. The libretto is a notorious piece of work to put it mildly. Although a gamma is too good for the book and the music is of varying quality, the best music raises it to a beta.