United Kingdom Weber, Oberon: Soloists, St Paul’s Sinfonia, New Sussex Opera Chorus, Nicholas Jenkins (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 25.11.2014 (MB)
Oberon – Adam Tunnicliffe
Puck – Siân Griffiths
Sir Huon – Adrian Dwyer
Sherasmin – Damian Thantrey
Reiza – Sally Silver
Fatima – Carolyn Dobbin
Five Fairies – Nisha McIntyer-Burnei, Beatrice Monaco, Michael Diamini, Rachel Farago, Rachel Shouksmith
Harry Fehr (director)
Charlie Lucas (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)
What on earth to do with Oberon, Weber’s last opera, written – are you listening, the Royal Opera? – for Covent Garden? Many consider it to contain the composers’s greatest music. I am not sure I should go so far; or, perhaps better, the genre with which Weber was lumbered, made it simply impossible for the music to tell as it should. If we think that Purcell had it bad with the dreadful mess of ‘semi-opera’, at least he had Dryden, although, as Sir Donald Tovey put it, ‘Our first and greatest man of genius in dramatic music was … condemned to inaugurate a tradition whereby English opera consisted of music that merely added a series of lyric and spectacular digressions to a play which, if good at all, would be better without the digressions.’ Weber, alas, had James Robinson Planché, whose libretto for Oberon for Tovey ‘represents an advance on [semi-opera] … inasmuch as the play would not be better without the digressions,’ thus leading up to what, regrettably, remains an unforgettable and largely unarguable claim: Weber ‘poured his last and finest music into this pig-trough.’ A sequel to A Midsummer Night’s Dream might seem ill-advised at the best of times; this, however, was certainly not the best of times.
And so, it was a brave and highly laudable decision for New Sussex Opera to stage Oberon. Nothing, I am afraid, can begin to redeem the libretto, whose lack of dramaturgical coherence is truly a thing of wonder. (One is almost left wishing that England had truly been a Land ohne Musik at the time.) Considering a roughly comparable – and far from un-problematical – work, Schubert’s Fierrabras, does not help; but then nothing can, save perhaps for the deconstructionist reimagining production of one’s dreams. Neuenfels or Herheim perhaps? That, of course, is not what we have, or could have have, here. Harry Fehr has limited resources and for the most part elects to play things straight, save, perhaps for some dubious – or dubiously executed? – choreography. Dress is more or less ‘modern’ but not really in the service of any particular ‘concept’. Chairs are perhaps over-used; waving them around to depict a storm seemed on the verge of exhausting some members of the chorus. A few sheets might have done the job better. But Fehr’s is clearly a thankless task and the contours of the drama, such as it is, register clearly enough.
It was a great pity that the orchestra could not have been augmented. (Might not some amateur string players have been found?) A string section of 126.96.36.199.1, even in a smallish hall, is bound, with the best will in the world, to sound undernourished at times for Weber’s score. That said, the players of St Paul’s Sinfonia for the most part responded admirably to Nicholas Jenkins’s sensitive, keenly dramatic traversal. Flexible and cultivated, with plenty of direction: his was a reading worthy both of Weber and of the gamble the company had made in mounting the enterprise. I should be keen to hear more of the conductor in such and indeed other repertoire.
The chorus had some shakier moments but for the most part acquitted itself well, summoning up a good, full sound for the close. Soloists did their best to bring to life the ‘characters’. Adrian Dwyer showed no sign of tiring from the difficult demands of the tenor hero, Sir Huon, offering creditable nobility of tone throughout. Sally Silver coped very well indeed with the loss of a monitor at the beginning of the second act, leaving her unable to see the conductor at all during ‘Ocean! Thou mighty monster!’ If her intonation was not always perfect, slips did not unduly distract, and she again invested the role with a dignity it perhaps does not entirely deserve. Carolyn Bobbin proved a lively Fatima, drawing one in as much as one could reasonably expect. Adam Tunnicliffe’s Oberon sounded destined – and I hope it will be – for a larger hall or theatre. Most importantly, then, we had a good opportunity to experience this opera ‘live’, for which thanks and congratulations should go to New Sussex Opera.