To understand Schubert's misfortune as an opera composer look no further than Fierrabras, which marks the composer's first venture into the form. Composed for Vienna in 1823, prevailing Rossini mania at the time led the première to be withdrawn, and the work was not performed until 1835 – seven years after Schubert's death. Fierrabras is hardly staple repertoire today, but productions in Zurich, La Monnaie and Salzburg during the current millennium indicate growing interest in the opera. Now, La Scala has joined the club, by staging the work for the first time.

Peter Sonn (Eginhard) © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Peter Sonn (Eginhard)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The decision to do so was not entirely casual. Claudio Abbado, whose godlike status in Milan owes to his 18 years at the La Scala helm, was largely responsible for reviving international interest in Fierrabras with a benchmark live broadcast performance from Vienna in 1988. Alexander Pereira, La Scala's current superintendent, commissioned a Peter Stein production of the work for the 2014 Salzburg Festival when he was Intendant there. La Scala's run draws on both of those legacies, by bringing Pereira's Salzburg production to Milan and entrusting the baton to Daniel Harding, Abbado's former protégé.

The story centres on a pair of apparently doomed relationships to the backdrop of Charlemagne's (King Karl) reconquest of Spain from the Moors in the 9th century. The libretto is weak – its trite story provides little in the way of a climax – but Schubert swaddles the text in gorgeous, graceful music. We are lucky, then, that Harding puts in a fine performance. His contained approach, while it will leave some wanting more abandon, matches the music for elegance. The choral numbers are beautifully shaped and the surface textures pristine and smooth. But it is Harding's grasp of the work's architecture that provides overall coherence. That, combined with the pithy, pulsing core he forges at its heart, makes this performance as engaging as it is polished.

<i>Fierrabras</i> © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Fierrabras
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Peter Stein's production, on the other hand, left much to be desired. To its credit, Ferdinand Wögerbauer's black and white scenes, inspired by Piranesi's etchings and consisting in 2D cut-outs layered to provide the impression of depth, have a fairytale charm of their own. Distinguishing Karl's knights from the Moors with black and white dress, too, is helpful. But better direction of the singers is required. Stein opts for sickly-sweet kitsch, having the chorus of Crusaders deliver their parts one by one from the Moorish castle in which they are imprisoned like damsels in distress. A bright red heart descends at the denouement, as a blessing on Roland and Florinda's union, is excruciatingly sickly-sweet.

Anett Fritsch (Emma) © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anett Fritsch (Emma)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Tomasz Konieczny, who boomed mightily as King Karl, was the standout singer in mixed cast. Bernard Richter as Fierrabras sang sweetly but lacked charisma, while Anett Fritsch's Emma was anodyne. Peter Sonn, with his bright, streaming sound, made a stronger impression as Eginhard and Lauri Vasar sang powerfully as Boland. Markus Werba has made a bigger impact on this stage than he does here as Roland. The main reason to catch this production is to hear Schubert's music in Harding's hands.

***11