- Grand romantische Opera in 3 acts
- Composer: Carl Maria von Weber
- Libretto: Helmina von Chézy
- First performed: Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna, 25 October 1823
SETTING: Prémery and Nevers, France, 1110
CHARACTERS: KING Louis VI (bass); ADOLAR, Count of Nevers (tenor); LYSIART, Count of Forest (bass); RUDOLF, a Knight (tenor); EURYANTHE of Savoy (soprano); EGLANTINE of Poiret (soprano); BERTHA, a country girl (soprano)
ORIGINAL CAST: Joseph Seipelt as Louis VI; Anton Haizinger as Adolar; Anton Forti as Lysiart; Jakob Wilhelm Rauscher as Rudolf; Henriette Sontag as Euryanthe; Therese Grünbaum as Eglantine; Henriette Theimer-Forti as Bertha
After the brilliant success of Der Freischütz, impresario Domenico Barbaja commissioned a work in the same style for the Vienna opera house’s 1822/23 season. Weber’s new opera was not a supernatural Singspiel, however, but a milestone in the road to Wagnerian music drama: a through-composed (durchkomponiert) chivalric romance set in the High Middle Ages.
Act 1: The beautiful Euryanthe of Savoy is betrothed to Adolar, Count of Nevers. Adolar makes a foolish bet with his rival Lysiart, Count of Forest: Lysiart claims all women are false, and boasts that he could easily seduce Euryanthe; Adolar stakes his land and titles on his fiancée’s virtue.
Act 2: The maiden is unwaveringly loyal to Adolar, but Lysiart produces a seeming love-token (a ring) obtained with the help of Eglantine, jealously in love with Adolar. That ring contains poison; Adolar’s sister Emma used it to commit suicide when her lover died in battle; now Euryanthe prays for her each night. Emma’s ghost can only be pardoned when the ring is washed with the tears of injured innocence. (In the French translation, as in Cymbeline, Lysiart’s ‘proof’ is his description of a mole on Euryanthe’s breast. With Eglantine’s help, he entered Euryanthe’s bedchamber by night, and spied on the sleeping woman.)
Act 3: The disgraced Adolar abandons Euryanthe in the wilderness to die; the king’s hunting party find her, but she collapses, apparently dead, from exhaustion and emotion. Eglantine rejoices in Euryanthe’s death, confessing the plot, whereupon Lysiart murders her. Happily, Euryanthe is not dead, and her suffering has ransomed Emma’s soul.
Euryanthe was given 20 times that season; although it was performed throughout Germany in the 1820s, and reached Paris and London in 1831, it never equalled the success of Der Freischutz.
From the first production, the libretto was criticized for its dreadful poetry, cluttered plot, and events dictated by stage effect rather than logic. Weber himself demanded nine revisions from the librettist Helmina von Chézy, a liberal journalist and playwright. The ghost was his idea (to provide opportunity for the supernatural effects that made Freischütz so popular). Smith (Historical Study of the Opera Libretto) calls Chézy’s poem “one of the worst experiments in the form, not so much because of its complexity of plot and vicissitude of event, but because of the librettist’s thoroughly fifth-rate dramatic mentality”. Gustav Mahler revised the work in 1903, cutting the ghost and the serpent in Act III; he complained the poetess’s heart was overfull, but her head was empty. Dent, however, agrees that the story is absurd – but no more so than some of Shakespeare’s; logic and realism are unnecessary in a mediaeval fairytale. Kobbé, too, defends it; “the opera’s conventions are those of the mediaeval Courts of Love, the attitudes those of the Troubadours; their restrained though ardent actions sometimes fit a little strangely to our eyes and ears with the romantic music they in Euryanthe inspire.”
Weber’s score, on the other hand, has been greatly admired. “This music is as yet far too little known and recognized,” Schumann wrote in 1847. “It is heart’s blood, the noblest he had; the opera cost him part of his life – truly. But it has also made him immortal.” Liszt found in Weber “a marvellous divination of the future shaping of the drama; and the endeavour to unite with opera the whole wealth of instrumental development”. More recently, Millington and Warrack & West argue that the continuous flow of music, the absence of spoken dialogue, the use of motif, the chromatic harmony (the most advanced until Liszt and Wagner), and the dramatic sweep of the music point the way to Wagner’s music dramas. Euryanthe, as many commentators have pointed out, is the obvious model for Lohengrin: Eglantine and Lysiart are the models for the deeper-voiced Ortrud and Telramund (baritone and dramatic soprano) who threaten the love of the more lyrical Elsa and Lohengrin.
That durchkomponiert style may have been more Italianate than German, however. Barbaja, Eisenbeiss notes, had already steered Rossini away from dry recitative (recitativo secco), and encouraged Weber to do the same. Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella (1822) and Spohr’s Jessonda (1823) had already abandoned Singspiel’s mixture of singing and talking.
On the other hand, Franz Grillparzer, writer and Beethoven’s friend, thought Weber’s music was horrible. “This revolt against melody, this rape of beauty would have been punished by the state in the Golden Age of Greece. Such music should be policed; it would make us inhuman if it could only find a way to a general audience… Only fools could like this opera, or imbeciles or theorists, or street-robbers and assassins.”
Act I begins in the gallery of the royal castle at Prémery. The opera starts slowly; the Introduction (No. 1: ‘Dem Frieden Heil’) and Adolar’s Minnelied in praise of Euryanthe (No. 2: ‘Unter blüh’nden Mandelbäumen’) seem rather tepid, even anti-climactic after the magnificent overture. The Trio and Chorus (No. 4: ‘Wohlan! du kennst’) contains the tenor’s splendid phrase ‘Ich bau’ auf Gott und meine Euryanth’, a ringing clarion call first heard in the overture, and which reappears as a motif symbolizing his faith in love.
The second scene of Act I is set in Adolar’s castle at Nevers, at the entrance to the vault where his sister Emma’s body lies; it is evening. Here we have the opera’s first great number: Euryanthe’s entrance aria (No. 5). She longs to see her lover. Her cavatina ‘Glöcklein im Thale!’ begins with an exquisite andantino prelude, woodwinds to the fore; the piece is long-breathed, full of twilight hush.
Eglantine wrests the secret of the vault from Euryanthe; the scene is a clear model for Act II of Lohengrin, where the villainess preys on the heroine’s sympathies for the outcast. Eglantine’s agitato aria (No. 6: ‘O mein Leid ist unermessen’) is more heightened recitative than melody. Nor is the duet (No. 7: ‘Unter ist mein Stern gegangen‘) particularly memorable. Much better is Eglantine’s Scene and Aria (No. 8: ‘Bethörte! die an meine Liebe glaubt‘), a loosely structured but dramatic allegro fiero. Lysiart arrives to escort Euryanthe to Adolar, launching the Finale (No. 9: ‘Jubeltöne, Heldensöhne!’). The vivace opening in D major is bright and brilliant – drums in the orchestra answer to four trumpets onstage; there are choruses of peasant women and male knights – a splendid effect. The finale ends with Euryanthe’s ‘Fröhliche Klange’, an allegretto aria with Italianate roulades, a dancing rhythm, and flutes twittering like birdsong.
Act II could almost convince one that the whole opera is a masterpiece: strong situations, emotional intensity, and powerful music, make it gripping theatre. We are still at Nevers Castle. The act opens with Lysiart’s big scene, a monologue looking forward to Wagner in its combination of recitative and aria. His love for Euryanthe torments him: he desires her, but she spurns him; he invokes the powers of vengeance. We can hear both the Flying Dutchman and Telramund. The vivace, however, falls back into Mozart.
Eglantine has stolen the ring from the vault; the two plot to destroy Adolar and Euryanthe. Their superb duet (No. 11: ‘Komm denn, unser Leid zu rächen!’), allegro energico in B major, is perhaps the most compelling ‘hatred’ duet between Gluck’s Armide and the Act II duet in Lohengrin.
Scene 2 moves to a gallery in the royal palace, brilliantly illuminated for a festival. Adolar’s aria (No. 12: ‘Wehen mir Lüfte Ruh’) in A flat is almost Wagnerian in its ardent tranquility; the opening for flute and clarinet sounds like Lohengrin. Euryanthe hastens to Adolar’s arms; their duet (No. 13: ‘Hin nimm die Seele mein!’), allegro in C, is a short burst of happiness before the storm breaks (No. 14: Finale: ‘Leuchtend füllt die Königshallen’). The court assembles, praising Euryanthe’s pure beauty (allegro moderato in F). Lysiart produces the ring, apparent proof of Euryanthe’s treachery. She confesses that she has broken her vow (i.e. told Eglantine about Emma), but denies she is faithless. Her prayer launches a quartet in A, which slowly builds to an impressive climax. All turn on Eglantine in a furious stretta. Curtain.
Act III: A lonely mountain gorge, lit by the moon. Adolar has brought Euryanthe to this desolate spot to kill her. The scene (No.15) begins with a foreboding adagio prelude in A minor; Warrack considers this opening “extraordinary”: “bleakly shifting harmonies reflect, with true romantic imagery, their misery against the desolation of the scene”. The recitative could easily be mistaken for Wagner. So could the duet ‘Wie liebt’ ich dich’ (A major), where Adolar reproaches Euryanthe. The agitato section is rather awkward. Just as he is about to draw his sword and dispatch her, Euryanthe sees a gigantic serpent approaching; she throws herself in its way, ready to sacrifice her life for her lover (No. 16: Scene: ‘Schirmende Engelschaar’, in E major). Adolar, moved, will not slay her, but abandons her here to die. Forsaken by all, Euryanthe’s cavatina (No. 17: ‘Hier dicht am Quell’) in G is beautiful , calm and resolute in the face of death.
Horns announce the arrival of the King’s hunting-party; Victor Hugo considered the chorus in E flat (No. 18: ‘Die Thale dampfen, die Höhen glüh’n!’) “perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever composed”; I prefer the hunting chorus in Freischütz. Euryanthe begs to be left alone to die, but the men refuse to abandon her; she reveals Eglantine’s deceit, and the King promises to return her to Adolar (No. 19: Duett mit Chor: ‘Lasst mich hier in Ruh’ erblassen’, in C minor). Euryanthe expresses her joy in a heroic aria in C major (No. 20: ‘Zu ihm! o weilet nicht!’), but swoons; the knights sorrowfully carry her out.
The opera ends outside Nevers Castle. Peasants are decking a bridal pair’s cottage with garlands of flowers; their chorus (No. 21: ‘Der Mai, bringt frische Rosen dar’, allegretto in A major) returns to the rustic charm of Freischüitz. Adolar learns that the castle’s new owner Lysiart will marry Eglantine today, and hopes for heaven’s vengeance (No. 22: Solo mit Chor: ‘Vernichte kühn das Werk der Tücke’, allegro in B flat). This brief number leads straight into the wedding procession (No. 23: ‘Das Frevlerpaar! Weh’!’). Eglantine, however, is terrified; she has seen Emma’s ghost rise out of the vault, pointing an accusing finger. Adolar reveals himself, and his subjects hail their master. There follows a magnificently exciting ensemble (No. 24: Duett mit Chor: ‘Trotze nicht! Vermessener!’, in D major) in the vein of Beethoven or Cherubini. Finale (No. 25: ‘Lasst ruh’n das Schwert!’): The noblemen are about to fight, when the King intervenes; he will judge the case. Eglantine exults at the death of Euryanthe; she confesses to stealing the ring, and declares that her victim was innocent. Lysiart stabs her, and is taken away to be executed. Adolar is beside himself with guilt, but Euryanthe recovers … straight into an allegro reprise of her Act II duet. In prophetic ecstasy, Adolar has a vision of his sister’s salvation, and the opera ends with a joyous ensemble in E flat major.
Listen to: Jessye Norman (Euryanthe), Nicolai Gedda (Adolar), Tom Krause (Lysiart), Rita Hunter (Eglantine), with Marek Janowski conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, EMI 1974.
Watch: Elena Prokina (Euryanthe), Yikun Chung (Adolar), Andreas Schreiber (Lysiart), and Jolana Fogsaova (Eglantine), conductor Gérard Korsten, Cagliari, 2004; Dynamic.
- Edward J. Dent, The Rise of Romantic Opera, ed. Winton Dean, Cambridge University Press, 1976
- Philip Eisenbeiss, Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Operatic Impresario Domenico Barbaja, Haus Publishing, 2013
- The Earl of Harewood (ed.), Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book, London: The Bodley Head, 1987, 10th edition
- Barry Millington, “The Nineteenth Century: Germany”, in Roger Parker (ed.), The Oxford History of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1996
- Patrick J. Smith, The Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, reprinted Schirmer Books, 1975
- Tom Sutcliffe, The Faber Book of Opera, London: Faber & Faber, 2000
- John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997
- John Warrack, Carl Maria von Weber, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968
- See also Phil’s review.