Carl Maria von Weber completed no fewer than 10 operas, only one of which is performed with any frequency. While "Der Freischuetz" is unquestionably Weber's masterpiece, one must wonder about the neglect of works graced with overtures as beautiful as fe se he provided "Euryanthe" and Oberon," his last works for the theater. The usual explanation is that both are rendered unstageworthy by their inept librettos.
In compsing "Euryanthe," it was Weber's luck to have as his collaborator Helmina von Chezy, a dilettante from Dresden who, while she was in Vienna to supervise the premiere, got Shubert to write incidental music for her play "Rosamunde, Princes of Cyprus." In Weber's case as in Shubert's, Frau von Chezy was responsible for the creation of some remarkable music; Schumann called "Euryanthe" . . . "a chain of sparkling jewels from beginning to end -- all brilliant and flawless." The work is not likely to turn up at any of our major houses, but for the last four years a splendid recording has been available to validate Shumann's comment (with Jessye Norman, Nicolai Gedda, et al, Marek Janowski condicting; Angel SDL-3764).
The libertto of "Oberon," adapted by an Englishman named James Robertson Planche from a poem by Wieland, was dismissed by Sir Donald Francis Tovey as being "not even a bad drama . . . but the merest twaddle for regualting the operations of scene-shifters." Weber himself, who died in London less than two months after conducting the premiere, complained that "the intermixing of so many principal actors who do not sing, the omission of the music in the most important moments -- all deprive 'Oberon' of the title of an opera, and will make him unfit for all other theatres in Europe." But there was never any question regarding the stature of the music. Berlioz championed "Oberon" as Schumann championed "Euryanthe," and Percy Scholes wrote: "It delightfully fresh and original throughout, and entirely different from all the compositons. The keynote of the whole is its picture of the mysteries of elfland and the life of the spirits of the air, earth and water . . . . This note . . . is struck with full force and vibrates with an almost intoxicating sweetness."
Almost all performances of "Oberon" since Weber's death have been in Theodor Hell's German translation. There have been numerous attempts to revise the text over the years, and there have been three or four recordings of the opera. The finest, without question, was the one Deutsche Grammophon released in 1971, with Rafael Kublik conducting his Bavarian Radio orchestra and chorous and a fine cast headed by Birgit Nilsson, Placido Domingo, Hermann Prey, Donald Grobe and Julia Hamari. The three-disc set did not stay in the active catalogue long, but the recording has reappeared now, on DG's "mid-priced" Priviledge label and on only two disc (2726.052), in a form that should make it not only more accessible but well-nigh irresistible.
A major factor operating against the success of the original three-disc version was the inclusion of all the spoken dialogue and connective narration assigned to a fairy character named Droll. The effect was kitschy, and it was jarring to have the principal characters spoken lines delivered by actors whose voices didn't match those of the respective singers. In the two-disc reissue the "twaddle" has been minimized: Droll and the other actors have been edited out, and only the musical portions (all of them, happily) remain.
This works extremely well, not because the alleged drama holds together in spite of the missing spoken lines, but because Weber wrote some gorgeous arias and ensembles for "Oberon," and having them paraded without gratutious spoken interruptions is simply delicious. All the lines spoken in the original release are printed in the libretto insert with the reissue -- a much more satisfactory way of providing dramatic continuity in this case.
And there are two further advantages in addition to the obvious one of economy: Separating scrolls between numbers on all four sides makes it easy to find a particular section; and packaging the set in a gatefold container instead of a box saves shelf space.