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Euryanthe's Silence

Weber's opera Euryanthe is traditionally criticised as a masterpiece with blemishes that make it unstageable. The main problems allegedly stem from an over-complicated libretto with an inconsistent and unintelligible plot, set to music with such meticulous attention to every textual detail that the result is musically incoherent. [1]  To say there is a close connection between this view and the rarity of performances, even mutilated ones,  sounds at first like an obvious statement of cause and effect.  But it could equally be argued that the rarity of performances itself serves to perpepuate the critical emphasis on musical-textual misalliance.    For on the one hand it is understandable that a work largely studied, rather than heard and seen in the theatre, should be judged in terms that exclude any visual considerations. It is commonly regarded as outside the business of music criticism to speculate creatively on a mainly loose dimension of opera and relate it plausibly to the fixtures [2] : especially - and now we enter a vicious circle - when the effort is about to be wasted on something held to be basically deficient, rather than to crown what is already good.  On the other hand no director or team with sufficient overall talent to  project some exceptional and coherent musical insight through images and movement has so far  emerged to change accepted opinion through performance.

The converse of the Euryanthe phenomenon is that commercially successful  operas with laughable plots or libretti never lose their popularity as a result of  the almost exclusive critical emphasis on music and text. Apart from the fact that success attracts canonisation, this may simply be because regularly staged works offer some ready-made images or other to the writer who may not state or be conscious of how far these influence - usually to advantage - an understanding of libretto and/or music even when those alone are ostensibly being discussed.      So a major question here is whether we can construct an inclusively heard and seen idea of Euryanthe that will work, instead of getting stuck with the idea of irredeemable failure somewhere along the libretto/music axis.   
The emphasis away from textual fuss toward gestural clarity invites a classical approach to Euryanthe - in the sense of regarding it as basically a number opera [3] , and rejecting the more influential view that it is some kind of unsuccessful premonition of Wagner's music-drama. [4]  For if the set-pieces can be perceived as centres of gravity, then the transitions - those mixtures of accompanied recitative and arioso which take up significant timespans and constitute an important part of the opera's claims to innovation [5] - can drop most of their heavy responsibility for conveying details of verbal meaning to the audience and concentrate instead on supporting explanatory gesture, mime and movement, leaving the more, or less, obscure  textual flow to satisfy naturalistic opera convention that those creatures on stage are human, and therefore talk words.  The shift in perception of aria versus recitative would then be, broadly speaking, away from "meditation versus explanation "to "crisis versus consequent behaviour ".  This should make clearer why the aria is central - it generates the behaviour in the recitatives; furthermore, behaviour is understandable in terms of actions (visual and musical) without requiring a complicated verbal gloss.    
In the generations before Weber, the speech-like delivery of secco recitative was an acoustically possible way of conveying information in the smaller theatres for which it was originally intended.    By contrast, the words of accompanied recitative are less intelligible, the more elaborate the music, and the larger the theatre.    So from a practical standpoint as well, it is better in these transitions to let gesture and staging extract the essentials from the plot/text surface at a comprehensible pace, particularly since accompanied recitative introduces a definite metre and so invites choreography.
A significant role for movement and gesture in post-classical opera should also seem less extravagant when it is remembered how the classical style itself partly owes its multi-topicality and the kind of driven elaboration typified by the symphony to an early association with pantomimic ballet pioneered in  mid-eighteenth century Vienna by Hilverding and Starzer, then developed by Angiolini and Gluck, particularly in Don Juan and Sémiramis .[6]
Weber himself was evidently as much occupied with the visual aspects of opera as with music or text [7] and the then less well-defined role of the régisseur meant that an ambitious musical director could exercise much more influence on staging, lighting, costumes, etc. than would be thinkable today. [8]  Also during the years leading up to Euryanthe a new style of acting emerged in which an earlier taste for the picturesque - literally, the conception of staging as a series of tableaux modelled on paintings - gave way to a more fluid, gestural and "natural" style. [9]    An early exponent was W. Schröder-Devrient who sang Euryanthe in the 1824 Dresden performances. [10]    Euryanthe therefore appears at a transitional historical moment where picturesque staging, though not prettiness for its own sake, was still held to be desirable; at the same time a new form of expressive gesture was theoretically advocated, but could only be realised by someone with exceptional acting and singing talents like Schröder-Devrient.  This conflict of approach closely parallels the formal musical tension between the traditional enclosed opera number and the new free-ranging extended accompanied recitative.  
The following discussion first questions some common general criticisms of the music and libretto,  leading to an investigation of controversial scenes in the opera.  A more prominent role for gesture is proposed in two areas.  One is the classical perspective outlined above, where the set number is central and  so invites an interpretation of recitatives as behaviour rather than explanation. This will involve analysing some examples of set-pieces to show in what sense they can be seen as dramatically crucial, rather than decorative or even misplaced.  
Equally important, if more obvious, is the visual  dimension generally, and its potential to clarify, compensate or act as substitute for obscurities in the libretto or plot, particularly in those fluid recitatives.  Comments on stage direction are to be understood on a fairly abstract and simplified plane.  Abstract, because my experience of staging is limited to collaborative and advisory involvement as a composer of multi-media works, including opera, so that at times I might turn out to be providing directorial fantasies rather than practical suggestions.  Simplified, in the following sense.  Visual and textual elements supposedly interact with music rather as rhythm interacts with metre. Disregarding its own internal rhythm, music in an opera represents a hyper-meter for these other elements. Rhythm is not just asserting metre but playing with it.  Analogously,  non-musical elements play with the music, but I will only be sketching these out as though they were asserting a metre, and not proposing the actual rhythm.    The project seems worthwhile, if modest, since its present purpose is to help elucidate that far from self-evident "hyper-metre", the music,    rather than supply a clever production as such.
The occasional revivals of Euryanthe nearly all treat its alleged faults as a licence to cut, insert, replace or rearrange music, text or plot. [11]    Since none of these versions has brought the work any closer to public success the attitude  of René Leibowitz  that the music stands or falls as Weber wrote it [12] is adopted here.  It also avoids unnecessary complications and is a view with which Weber would apparently concur. [13]