WORKS: Oberon, arr. Mahler
PERFORMER: Gary Lakes, Ben Heppner, Deborah Voigt, Delores ZieglerChorus of the Oper der Stadt Koln, Cologne PO/Gürzenich Orchestra/James Conlon
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 7 54739 2 DDD
Oberon (1826) is one of the most beautiful, fascinating and worthwhile of all ‘problem operas’. Weber’s last work, it was written for Covent Garden, on a libretto (by James Robinson Planché) that has ensured its marginal status ever after. Planché took a good tale of crusaders, Moors and fairies and reduced it to the lowest level of prevailing London taste. It was on this pantomimic hotchpotch that the mortally-ill composer — he died two months after the premiere — lavished his mature theatrical mastery; in Donald Tovey’s famous phrase, he ‘poured his last and finest music into a pig-trough’. Ever since the first success of the work, it has mostly lain on the shelf — loved for its economical miracles of melody and orchestration, its astonishing varieties of atmosphere and mood, and despaired over for its gimcrack libretto.
Until the day someone finally achieves a viably theatrical Oberon re-working, it’s an opera probably best experienced on disc. EMI’s new set, made with Cologne forces, is the second in modern times; DG’s from the early Seventies (widi Birgit Nilsson, the young Domingo and Bavarian Radio forces conducted by Kubelfk) was recendy reissued on CD. Both present the work in German translation radier than in the English original (in EMI’s case, given its almost entirely Nordi American cast, a curious decision). Bodi use narrators to summarise the passages of spoken dialogue (EMI’s is a dreadful dullard). Kubelik brings to the orchestral and choral music a more lovingly colourful, plastic touch; Conlon’s cast achieves a more agile command over the many styles of the music.
If finally I admit a preference for the EMI recording, it’s because Deborah Voigt makes a sumptuous but also warmly sympathetic heroine, and because the Canadian Ben Heppner (as the hero, Huon) reveals the most thrilling new tenor voice — big, clean, malleable, with a shining top — to reach the studios for a very long time. Max Loppert