Beethoven missed the 1823 premiere of Weber’s Euryanthe in Vienna but wondered how it had gone. “How was the libretto?” he asked. “Good or bad?” Sadly, few librettos have been the object of more scorn than the chivalric tale crafted by the poet Helmina von Chézy. The evil mezzo-soprano (Eglantine) craves the tenor (Adolar), the evil baritone (Lysiart) lusts after the soprano (Euryanthe), and the two ne’er-do-wells scheme to advance their desires by marrying each other. Even worse for credibility, Euryanthe is condemned for infidelity by her beloved Adolar and everyone else when all she did was reveal a family secret.
Von Chézy’s libretto would be forgotten were it not attached to an opera of seminal importance and great music. In Eglantine and Lysiart, Weber’s “grand heroic Romantic opera” supplies obvious models for Ortrud and Telramund of Lohengrin, but there is so much more. Weber is especially comfortable writing picturesque genre choruses reminiscent of Der Freischütz, but he breaks new ground for German opera in the dramatic numbers, from Lysiart’s big aria, in which he reveals his torn nature, then resolves to destroy Adolar, to Euryanthe’s remarkable solo scene sung abandoned in the wilderness. The happy ending reuniting Euryanthe and Adolar, like that of Fidelio, is intensely moving.
As Euryanthe, Ellie Dehn, in creamy voice, is on marvellous form in this Bard SummerScape production, as she conveys the girl’s despair, then rallies in the ecstatic “Zu ihm!” (“To him!”) when envisioning a reconciliation with Adolar. Also excellent is William Burden, not least in an aria in which Adolar takes on Lohengrin-like qualities. Wendy Bryn Harmer, singing with laser-like intensity, is especially powerful in remorsefully revealing Eglantine’s misdeeds, but a stronger voice than Ryan Kuster’s is needed to bring out Lysiart’s full malevolence. Peter Volpe contributes a richly sung King Ludwig.
Kevin Newbury’s production, with sets by Victoria Tzykun and costumes by Jessica Jahn that place the opera in the 19th century, looks good and works well but offers no magical cures for the opera’s problems. The suicide of Adolar’s sister, which sets the plot in motion, is enacted during the famous overture, but, as the Met’s Lucia tells us, random appearances by a ghost at a director’s behest are a bad idea. The music could benefit from a stronger profile than Leon Botstein and the American Symphony give it, but this is the first US staging of Euryanthe in a century and no opera enthusiast should miss it.