Pros: Great musical performance of an exquisitely enchantingly exotic opera. Singers also do the dialogs.
Cons: The opera has a lousy format with LOTS of spoken dialogs.
Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon (The Elf Kings Oath) (RCA Red Seal 2CDs set)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis when he set James Robinson Planché's libretto adaptation of Christoph Martin Wieland's poem to music in 1826. One has to wonder if he would have fought harder to modify the structure of this 'opera' to be more music-oriented rather than as a English stage-play with musical numbers had his health not deserted him just then. Oberon contains such ungodly amount of spoken German dialogs (some scenes don't have any sung number at all!) that it is hardly an opera (or even a Singspiel) at all.
The opera opens in the fairy realm of Oberon the Elf King (our opera's Deus ex machina). His fairy aide-de-camp, Puck, narrates how Oberon had a heated argument with his betrothed Titania (who neither sings nor speaks in this opera, and so has no part in this recording) over which of their respective sex is more prone to infidelity. The Elf King had imprudently sworn that he won't share her bed again until they have found a pair of human lovers who would stick together through good times and bad. The oath is regretted as soon as it escaped his mouth, so Puck's report of how Charlemagne had punished the knight Hüon by ordering him and his squire, Scherasmin, off to Baghdad on a nonsensical mission provides Oberon with a way out. The fairy is immediately dispatched to plant a vision of the Persian Caliph's beautiful daughter Rezia in Hüon's dream (and also that of Hüon in Rezia's night vision). The (unfortunately) selected pair is to be Oberon's romantic salvation that would enable him to bed Titania again. With the stage set (and quite rigged), the lovers and their companions (Scherasmin and Rezia's maid, Fatime) endure many trials and tribulations in exotic settings from Persia to Tunisia (via the temperamental Mediterranean Sea) ...with more than a little help from Puck and the Elf King's magic horn. Their constancy to each other is well appreciated by Oberon (who is now free to resume his romp with Titania) and earns their welcoming return to France.
Actually sitting through a staged version of this opera could be quite a frustrating experience of waiting endlessly for the next musical number, even though the really meaningful chunk of the story is told in the boring spoken part. So, having a CD of it (where you can just read the synopsis before hand and then skip all the spoken part) is a blessing. Weber had a real gift for melody and was a master of orchestration. The overture, with its haunting opening horn calls and cinematic use of instruments and musical gestures, provides a good overview of the music of the opera proper and is a favorite selection at symphony concerts. The music's ingenious use of instrumental colors superbly sets the scenic backdrop of each scene. The orchestra sings as much as the singers do! Only accomplished singers need applied to sing in this opera since it cruelly demands vocal heft as well as fluid agility from all the principal singers. If you enjoy the music of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (especially his fairy 1843 opera, A Mid Summer Night's Dream), you'll find a lot of similar themes in Weber's Oberon.
Oberon (Elf King) ::: Deon van der Walt (tenor)
Puck (Oberon's fairy) ::: Melinda Paulsen (contralto)
Hüon (Duke of Guienne, works for Charlemagne) ::: Peter Seiffert (tenor)
Sherasmin (Hüon's squire) ::: Bo Skovhus (baritone)
Rezia (Daughter of Harun al Raschid, The Persian Caliph) ::: Inga Nielsen (soprano)
Fatime (Rezia's confidante) ::: Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo-soprano)
Marek Janowski/ Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Robin Gritton/ Rundfunkchor Berlin
Recorded in January 1996 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXpzs7BMFys (Act II quartet 'Über die blauen Wogen')
From the first horn call that starts the overture, Maestro Marek Janowski transports us from the mundane reality to a magical world of Oberon and draws a sea of magical sounds from the DSO-Berlin in a vividly cinematic read of Weber's very pictorial score. From the fairies lightly dancing through Oberon's forest, the waves being parted by the hull of Hüon's ship, the sea-tempest that sinks it, the exotic Caliphate of Baghdad, to the return to the grandeur of Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom. You can close your eyes and almost reach out and touch Weber's vision of the Arabian Sea! The forward movement of the story is well sustained through out the musical part, so that you can skip the spoken tracks to find the next musical number picking up right where the last left off. The conductor is wonderfully supportive of his singers, and facilitates a wonderfully interactive cooperation between them and the orchestra. The versatile Rundfunkchor Berlin under Chorus Master Robin Gritton is also beyond reproach in their clean and clear impersonation of anything from the fairies to the Persians to the Tunisians.
The principal singing cast is from good to great. Deon Van Der Walt is a regal and sympathetic Oberon. Inga Nielsen is, strangely, a very effective Rezia, the show's leading lady who shoulders one of opera's most psychological and beautifully warped music. Her occasionally overwhelmingly sheen light voice may take some getting used to, but she is histrionically as convincing in her frail moments as in her majestic ones. Her Rezia stands up well against the other wonderful performances of Birgit Nilsson or Hillevi Martinpelto (on the Kubelik and the Gardiner CD of the opera) in the work's obnoxiously demanding aria, 'Ozean, du Ungeheuger (Ocean, thou mighty monster ).' I don't mean that her voice is as impressively imposing, but she really uses it well in aptly portraying Rezia's various states of mind. The voice is fluidly agile, secure through out the role's insanely wide vocal range, and could cut through the orchestra magnificently when needed. As her suitor and champion, Hüon, is Peter Seiffert, who boasts a fittingly youthful, heroic, though (maybe a bit more than) occasionally unsteady voice. Once you get pass his tremolo, though, he sings quite musically and expressively... knightly in his outbursts, and poignantly in his Prayer.
Vesselina Kasarova and her colorfully dusky exotic voice gives a captivating performance as Fatime, truly a most luxuriously sultry Arabic maid I can imagine. The difference between her singing voice and her speaking one is more pronounced than most, so hearing her go from the light-voiced shy girl in the spoken dialog to the blossoming deep mezzo voice of a sensual woman in the ensuing musical number is quite a strangely mesmerizing experience. This is as exquisite a performance as you can ever hope for from a support role! Kasarova is well paired with the very manly voiced and well sung Scherasmin of Bo Skovhus. Melinda Paulsen turns in a delightfully engaging Puck with a light enough touch to be convincingly sprite as a fairy, and also dramatically authoritative when she conjures up a marvelous sea storm out of thin air to give the human lovers a sea voyage to remember. All the principals also blend very well in the ensembles.
To me, this recording out-performs all the other existing CDs available today (the Kubelik and the Gardiner recordings included). Not only is the musical performance superb, it is also the only recording I know of where the modified (by Dr. Götz Naleppa) spoken German dialog is done by the singers themselves (and everyone speaks at least understandable German), whereas the other recordings cut them in favor of short narratives. I should note that these singers are more used to vocal acting when they are singing their lines rather than when they speak them... so there's a bit of a disconnect in their acting from musical numbers and spoken ones. The spoken roles are done by more theatrically trained actors, so there in long spoken passages, the singers often sound like they're reading their line while the spoken roles reply as if engaging in a normal conversation... which makes for an interesting listening). The sound quality is very well balanced and clean, though the spoken part is set at a lower volume than the singing part. The CD is highly recommended even for opera newbies... who can just skip the dialog tracks and revel in the splendid dream world aptly depicted by Weber and this stellar set of artists.
2 CDs. Sung and spoken in German. Booklet comes with tracks list, cast list, a note on the history of the opera, synopsis, and printed libretto in German, English, & French.