Marek Janowski conducted the first commercial recording of Weber’s “grand heroic opera” Euryanthe in 1974 , with Jessye Norman, Rita Hunter and Nicolai Gedda and the Dresden Staatskapelle. For this performance in the newly reopened DDR era Kulturpalast, Janowski directed the Dresdner Philharmonie, still with the Leipzig MDR Radio Chorus and an international cast.

Euryanthe in concert in Dresden
© Björn Kadenbach

Though the opera itself was first performed in Vienna in 1824, it does seem to belong in Dresden. The work was composed while Weber was working as a reforming Kapellmeister at the Court Opera. His grave can be found in the Old Catholic Cemetry in Friedrichstadt and, at the reinterment of his body in 1844, the then Kapellmeister, Richard Wagner, conducted Trauermusik for wind band based on themes from Euryanthe.

Many parallels can be drawn between the works of the two, and the influences of Weber on his successor, especially in Lohengrin, with the disposition of the characters into a ‘dark’ and ‘light’ couple, in a chivalric setting drawn from a medieval romance. In Euryanthe, Weber set out consciously to avoid writing another Freischütz, advancing his style, loosening the structure with through-composed arioso, monologues and extended ensembles. His harmonic language ranges from bright diatonic to eerie and dark chromaticism, with some use of recurring motifs. His orchestration is strikingly original with its signature woodwind colouring. What has prevented this innovative work from establishing itself in the general repertoire, as has been recognised ever since its première, is its lame plot. The librettist, the very minor poet Helmina von Chézy, was inexperienced in writing for the stage. The text is stilted and plot development clumsy, with little character insight.

Having seen four staged productions, none of which have made coherent sense of the plot, a concert version provided the best opportunity to appreciate its musical values. Certainly a world-class cast had been assembled. Emily Magee, with her wide experience in the German Romantic repertoire, was in glowingly refulgent voice as the 'damsel in distress', Euryanthe. Falsely accused of unchastity at the instigation of the rejected Lysiart, her bridegroom Adolar rejects her. Too passive to prove her innocence, she is abandoned in a desert. In the last act, she asserts herself and, in the pathos and mounting assurance of her arioso and cavatina, Magee’s secure and full-voiced singing gave promise of her Sieglinde later this year at Bayreuth and Covent Garden.

Emily Magee and Catherine Foster among the cast for Euryanthe in Dresden
© Björn Kadenbach

As her nemesis, the cunning Eglantine who attempts her downfall by revealing the secret behind Euryanthe’s midnight tryst in a tomb, Catherine Foster commanded from her first serpentine entry, to the slithering coilings of the strings. Her power and ringing top notes came as no surprise to those familiar with her Bayreuth Brünnhilde. Weber’s vocal writing also calls for flexibility, sureness in florid passages, and evenness in the range from resonant chest to top register. Foster’s skills made for an outstanding role debut, and a reminder that her early roles included The Queen of the Night. With flashing glance, a wily smile and the vehemence of her score turning, Foster gave an extra dimension to this concert performance. And what audience can resist the thrill of an evil schemer in a tiara? As her crime partner Lysiart, bass-baritone Egils Silins matched Foster with his powerful if gritty singing and both earned a tumult of applause for the Vengeance Duet that closed the first half.

Bernhard Berchtold, standing in at short notice for an indisposed Christian Elsner as Adolar, is a regular Tamino, Belmonte and Max in German houses. He displayed all the virtues of his Fach with flexible voice and expressive phrasing in his opening Romance. Just short of the Wagnerian firepower of his colleagues, his musicality and experience, having sung the role in Frankfurt, made the credulous character more sympathetic than the plot warrants. Steven Humes impressed as the King, with his capacious bass.

The MDR Choir was exemplary in its rhythmic precision, tuning and clarity of diction. The men sang lustily in the horn-accompanied Huntsmen’s Chorus, just managing in passing to save the hapless Euryanthe from a dragon threatened wilderness.

In the clear resonant acoustic of the new terraced auditorium, all blonde wood and faceted cameo white, Janowski led a performance of fine balance and rhythmic verve with the trademark mellow Dresden brass which had also been in evidence at the previous week’s Bruckner 9. With resounding fanfares and characterful woodwind, he delineated all the colours like a medieval illumininated manuscript. It is only regrettable that Janowski sanctioned the cut of the May Song in Act 3, as its vernal freshness provides regenerative balm after the preceding trials.

The strength of this performance gave ample proof of Euryanthe’s uniqueness and influence in the same week as the Semperoper was performing Wagner’s Ring.