7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 23


Sound if

not sight

Rodney Milnes

Because it fails to fit in with received ideas of how opera should be structured — through-composed and largely corntemplative — Weber's and Planches Oberon is currently under something of a critical cloud. The conventions of a period (1826) when British theatre is traditionally supposed to have been at its lowest ebb (another received idea that requires reexamination) demanded action in the theatre, and in Oberon there is enough action to fill a dozen ordinary operas. The librettist knew what his audience wanted, and served it up faultlessly. The loving constancy of Sir Huon and his Rezia is tested by shipwreck, marauding pirates, Tunisian captivity and near death at the stake; their trials are not dissimilar to those of Mozart's Pamina and Tamino, even if they lack the stern ideological basis of The Magic Flute. These lovers, like most ordinary mortals, must suffer the cruel whims of chance. This is reflected in the picaresque, eventful scenario with its exotic settings and elaborate transformation scenes.

No one seems to believe that Oberon can work on the stage today. But once you accept that narrative can be carried by spoken dialogue, that not every character in an opera necessarily has to sing, that spectacular stagecraft has an important place in the theatre (as is brilliantly demonstrated in Glyndebourne's seicento offerings) — and audiences can accept all this even if musicologists can't — then all you need is a large theatre, a generous budget, talented singers and actors, and a producer who combines the talents of Peter Hall, Zeffirelli and Cecil B. de Mille. The result would be a masterly and cruelly neglected British opera.

Meanwhile, Oberon fanciers must, and will, be content with the marvellously successful recording by DDG (2709 035). The hero of this three-record set is Rafael Kubelik, who draws clean and punchy playing from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and clearly recognises the composer's genius for operatic effect. The score is decades ahead of its time. There is not just early but late Wagner as well; fairy music that surpasses Mendelssohn's; vivid orchestration that excited Berlioz's admiration, especially in the use of woodwind; modulations that would not be out of place in Strauss; a cello phrase thrice repeated a tone higher each time of which Tchaikovsky need not have been ashamed. Weber's tone-painting is uncannily accomplished for its day, and his musical accompaniment for the transformations artfully contrived. The very diffuseness of the action is drawn together by his sparing but telling use of authentic oriental motifs. All this, and more, is faithfully realised by Kubelik.

DDG has wisely not skimped on singers. At the centre of this work lies the powerful scena 'Ocean! Thou mighty monster and Birgit Nilsson is a natural for this. You might almost feel pity for unwary pirates attempting to abduct this ball of fire, but Miss Nilsson also copes successfully with the delicate coloratura and the breath-taking cavatina in Act 3. Placido Domingo is no less distinguished; the original Huon was noted for his top Bs and Weber gave him ample opportunity to exercise them. Domingo's, both ringing and meltingly soft, are no less spectacular, and neither the florid vocal writing nor the German language hold any terror for him. Donald Grobe, Hermann Prey and Julia Hamari make up the cast. The opera is sung in the standard German translation: sad but, as no British company had, the guts to take the plunge, unavoidable. There are acres of well-meaning but rather ghastly German dialogue, miles from Planck* narrated by an extra character named, Droll (who turns out to be about as droll as the Book of Job) and ponderously delivered. But let that put no one off this unique score.

Nobilmente e semplice is the marking for the opening theme of Elgar's first symphony, and it is the latter adverb that is emphasised in Sir Georg Solti's persuasive new recording for Decca (SXL 6569). Not that the former is ignored, but it is untarnished by pomp, pride or any sense of celebrating something achieved. Rather it is a motto for the future, a symbol of hope, of sorely tested belief that something worthwhile might be salvaged from man's essential ignobility. There is despair, bitterness even, in this autumnal piece, autumnal long before the autumn either of its creator or the society to which he belonged, and it is the toughness of the musical thought, the clarity and almost French delicacy of the scoring that Solti wisely chooses to dwell upon. In this he is indeed nobi/mente supported by the LPO and the Decca engineers, and I don't imagine there is a more successful recording in all the twenty-five years he has worked with this company.

• The new CBS release (73046) of Pinchas Zukerman playing a selection of Kreisler's arrangements and originals could hardly be a happier antidote to this severe dose of melancholia. Just enough schmalz, just enough sense of fun, never too much, and when these charming miniatures turn out to be more substantial than they at first sight seem, Zukerman is there to point this up. For sheer enjoyment this record takes a lot of beating.