When opera buffs gather during an intermission—or any of the other many instances these people have time on their hands—their conversation tends to turn not to the current performance or even how great things used to be 30 years ago. Instead, they play the game of “why not?”
Why not, they ask, cast Anna Netrebko as Desdemona in Otello? Why not do a production of Lohengrin using a live swan? Or, even more urgently, why not produce [insert title of obscure opera here]?
A title you occasionally will hear “inserted” is Carl Maria von Weber’s 1823 melodrama Euryanthe, which made an appearance Sunday at Bard SummerScape, the first staging of this opera in the United States since 1914. Unfortunately, the answer to the “why not” was, simply and bluntly, “because it’s not a very good opera.”
The spotty performance history of Euryanthe even in Weber’s native Germany is most often blamed on the rickety libretto by Helmina von Chézy. It’s a gothic tale in which the noble maiden Euryanthe is privy to her beloved Adolar’s family scandal: his sister Emma committed suicide upon hearing of the death of her lover, and her ghost cannot rest until the tears of an innocent fall upon a ring on the hand of her corpse. Euryanthe blurts out this secret to the scheming Eglantine, who’s also in love with Adolar, and the villainess frames the heroine as a wanton woman. After more than three hours of slut shaming and a last-minute appearance by dead Emma, all is resolved happily.
Even sillier stories than this Chézy libretto have yielded popular operas, but a bigger problem here is that Weber’s charmingly romantic music mostly fails to flow from scene to scene. Expertly composed choruses, arias and duets all sound like stand-alone numbers, creating a fragmentary effect.
Once, though, Weber crafts a scene as dramatic as anything in opera before Wagner. At the beginning of the third act, the disillusioned Adolar and the heartbroken Euryanthe wander through a forest. He decided to kill her and then himself; she protests her innocence. The give and take is magically fluid, not aria or duet or recitative, rather simply musical drama.
If this production, performed at the intimate Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, didn’t make the best case for the work, that wasn’t the fault of the singers. They were all fine, in particular Ryan Kuster, smoothly malevolent as the vicious Lysiart. His lithe bass-baritone never hardened even in the most frenzied outbursts, and the dark, noble timbre of the voice made his deception seem all the more plausible.