With a convincing musical performance but a sometimes incomprehensible staging, Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras ran as the last opera in this year’s Salzburg Festival.

To appreciate that Fierrabras is in no way a straightforward operatic proposition, you only have to take one look at its history. Schubert was never able to see it premièred because of various conflicts. Indeed, the work languished for a long time without a performance, let alone any great success. So now, this Schubertian operatic rarity comes to Salzburg, where director Peter Stein’s approach is anything but direct (actually, the story would be a good model for a symbolic rendering of words like Love and Friendship). Set in the period of Charlemagne, the libretto tells the story of tangled love affairs and valiant knights, who desire nothing but freedom in their homeland, and, of course, women.

Already, the black and white paper curtain, which divides the first scenes from each other, indicates that a staging that is often visually striking. There’s more black and white to come. Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s sets are created from various partitions branded “cardboard box”, giving the impression that the arches and columns were cut out of a craft template. On the one hand, this permits him to create the illusion of a large space; on the other hand, the presentation produces a very clichéd image of the days of chivalry. The Frankish king Charles’s castle is rectilinear and simple, while in the homeland of the moor Fierrabras, walls and furniture abound with oriental patterns. The good guys are clad in white, the bad guys in black. Annamaria Heinreich’s costumes take this clichéd presentation yet further. Of course, it seems reasonable that the main characters should be clad in supposedly period costumes, adorned with silver armour, helmets and garlands. But one has to ask whether the actual clothing fabrics of Charlemagne’s time really looked like bedspreads from Ikea.

Vocally, it must be said, the evening reached a high level. As Eginhard, tenor Benjamin Bernheim enthralled us with his clear, unforced timbre. He sang powerfully in the lyrical song-like parts. The title role was sung by internationally lauded tenor Michael Schade. His performance Fierrabras came through like a sort of precursor to Wagnerian Heldentenor singing, but with a great deal of strength in the high passages. In these, he allowed the brightness of his voice to shine through, in spite of having to spend the whole evening as a moor with his face painted black. He also showed this sublimity in the scenes involving his unrequited love for the King’s daughter Emma – in which, however, one might have wished for a little more empathy. Emma’s father, King Charles, was sung by Georg Zeppenfeld, immediately recognisable as a singer who generates pathos when a crown is placed on his head as a result of his time in Bayreuth as King Henry [the Fowler, in Lohengrin]. However, the quality of his bass voice brought across the true nobility of a righteous lord.

Amongst the women, both main roles deserve equal mention. Julia Kleiter shone as Emma, not in the slightest in the background compared with the strong male parts. Her bright timbre was effectively accented and she gave a convincing impression of undying love. As the moorish princess Florinda, Dorothea Röschmann was successful in filling her voice with passion and variety as she counters her father and his vassals.

In this three act performance, the singers, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic were led by Ingo Metzmacher. He gave solid leadership to the chorus, which is very active in the movements around the stage, without neglecting either singers or orchestra. Musically, it was especially in the interludes that the conductor extracted the narrative force of Schubert’s melodies.

But the excess that took the biscuit was kept until last. Of course, the festival audience has sat well behaved through the hours bearing with the performers and has accepted without comment all the various madnesses in the staging. But to cap all the evils in the final scene, an oversized, kitsch, red heart to symbolise “love conquers all” was lowered onto the stage, enough to release the inhibitions of the most earnest of operagoers. Loud laughter rang through the Haus für Mozart from the stalls up to the top row, with the flood gates now open to the hilarity that some of the staging had already generated. What can one learn from this evening? That the best doesn’t always come at the end, and that an outstanding group of singers is worth its weight in gold.

Translated from German by David Karlin