Each year Bard’s SummerScape program includes a fully staged opera, which is selected according to three requirements: It must relate to the season’s featured composer; it must be relatively rare or unknown to contemporary audiences; and it must, of course, be a noteworthy work of art, deserving of a significant investment of money and artistic effort. Euryanthe, a grand opera by Carl Maria von Weber, fits the bill perfectly: Weber was not only a contemporary of Franz Schubert, this season’s featured composer, but the lackluster reception of Euryanthe when it premiered in Vienna in 1823 also prefigured the failure of Schubert’s one and only full-length opera to get produced in his lifetime.
Last staged at the Met in 1914, Euryanthe hasn’t been performed in the US in a century. And while the opera’s failure to catch on has partly been blamed on the weak libretto and absurd plot, the music soars, according to Susana Meyer, producer of SummerScape opera. “It has real arias,” she said. “Pieces of the music get lodged in my brain and I can’t get them out. It’s very beautiful and very sticky.”
Plus, by setting the opera – which is based on a 13th-century French romance – in the Victorian Era, some of the weaknesses of the plot are turned into strengths, according to Meyer. Briefly, Euryanthe is a story of jealousy, in which a rival for the eponymous heroine’s affections seeks to undermine the trust of her betrothed, a soldier named Adolar. The evil count joins forces with a woman under Euryanthe’s protection who is secretly in love with Adolar and schemes to destroy Euryanthe and her relationship with him. A ghost haunting the premises adds to the Gothic flavor: It’s the soul of Adolar’s sister, who committed suicide and will only find peace if certain actions are taken by the heroine.
Essentially the opera “is about fear of female sexuality and fidelity,” said Euryanthe’s director Kevin Newbury. By choosing a period “of corsets and buttoned-up women, of a patriarchal society,” the opera focuses on repressed desire and the demonization of the victim, akin to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” noted Newbury; for much of the production, the heroine is literally a marked woman.
By focusing on such psychically powerful themes, the production helps smooth over the more preposterous lapses in the libretto, said Meyer. “When a woman is sexually repressed, it’s easy to believe the heroine was bullied into believing she had been bullied” by her fiancé, she explained, referring to Euryanthe’s unwise revelation of a secret that she shared with Adolar to the woman who posed as her friend. The Gothic setting heightens the intensity of “this quintessential work of German Romanticism, with its big chorus, big overture and huge orchestral sound,” said Newbury.
The five principals are Ellie Dehn as Euryanthe; William Burden as Adolar, the noble soldier and Euryanthe’s betrothed; Ryan Kuster as Lysiart, the evil count who lusts after Euryanthe and seeks to destroy Adolar by undermining his trust in Euryanthe; Wendy Bryn Harmer as Eglantine, the mutineer’s daughter who betrays Euryanthe (a “mean woman” through and through, hence a delight to play, according to Harmer); and Peter Volpe as King Ludwig.
While Euryanthe never enjoyed the popularity of Weber’s Der Freischutz – an earlier work that epitomizes German Romantic opera in its references to the supernatural and weaving of simple folklike melodies into the score – it broke new ground: It was the first work of Weber’s that lacks spoken dialogue, and its continuous musical texture and consistent use of contrasting harmonic styles to characterize good and evil achieved a greater unity than in the earlier piece.
Christopher Gibbs, co-artistic director of SummerScape and also an authority on Schubert and the resident scholar of this year’s festival, noted that the plot and other elements of Euryanthe reappear in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. “Wagner knew the opera very well and was a very shrewd semi-plagiarist,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs added that one reason why Euryanthe failed to catch on in Vienna was that the opera was in German, which did not go over well with a public that was awash in Italian fever and in particular crazy about Gioachino Rossini. That failure “was another blow for German opera,” which didn’t recover until the advent of Wagner a few decades later, he noted.
Even today, Euryanthe “has a bit of a bad reputation,” according to Meyer. It’s produced so seldom that Newbury likened the Bard production to a world premiere, and said that he felt as if he were “taking the first crack” at the piece.
The SummerScape sets and costumes are sumptuous, the singing magnificent. This production of Euryanthe is another compelling reason why culture aficionados no longer have to travel to Manhattan to experience glorious works of art in which gems of tradition have been retrieved from the dustbin of history and polished to perfection for today’s audience.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe, Bard SummerScape, Friday, July 25, 7 p.m., Sunday, July 27, 2 p.m. (free talk at 12 noon), Wednesday, July 30, 2 p.m., Friday, August 1, 7 p.m., Sunday, August 3, 2 p.m., $25-$95, Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center, Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.