Tales of suspense

Carl Weber's operas are rarely staged, but that hasn't deterred Scottish Opera from taking on the challenge

No wonder Carl Maria von Weber held the superstitious belief that he lived under an "evil star". Consumptive from birth - and lame, too - he nearly died when he accidently drank engraving acid preserved in a wine bottle by his feckless father. Not only was the young man badly poisoned, but his mouth and windpipe were so severely burned that it was some time before he could speak again, and he lost his fine singing voice for ever.

No wonder Carl Maria von Weber held the superstitious belief that he lived under an "evil star". Consumptive from birth - and lame, too - he nearly died when he accidently drank engraving acid preserved in a wine bottle by his feckless father. Not only was the young man badly poisoned, but his mouth and windpipe were so severely burned that it was some time before he could speak again, and he lost his fine singing voice for ever.

Despite this calamity, and various other misfortunes that he attributed to the "evil star", Weber lived a full and astonishingly productive life until his early death at the age of 39 after the premiere of his last opera, Oberon, at Covent Garden in 1826. As his biographer John Warrack reminded me: "The list of composers influenced by him is considerable." Without Weber's progress in establishing a German opera tradition - as distinct from the Italian variety - Wagner would have had to start several steps back. In terms of orchestral innovation, Berlioz, Mahler, Stravinsky and Debussy were all "touched by the wand of the magician Weber" as the last-named put it, while Weber's piano style inspired both Chopin and Liszt.

He features in a poem by Baudelaire ("one of Weber's strangled sighs"), his "great genius" was praised by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he was drawn by Aubrey Beardsley, who also remarked that Weber's piano pieces reminded him of "the beautiful glass chandeliers at the Brighton Pavilion". Yet today he remains more admired from a distance than enjoyed close up. The Edinburgh Festival's presentation, on four consecutive days, of Weber's three greatest operas and a programme of his instrumental music offers a welcome opportunity to reassess a composer whose remarkable achievements have remained somewhat eclipsed, perhaps by that "evil star".

Mozart's wife Constanze and her sister Aloysia Weber were among Weber's cousins, and the latter's father, who ran a touring theatre group in which his mother sang, was determined to "rear a second Mozart". Life with travelling players equipped Weber for the position of director at various opera houses, where he took responsibility for planning, casting, production, costumes, scenery and even lighting. He was also one of the first musical directors to conduct standing up and with a baton.

An entertaining writer as well as a musician - the publication of his eight volumes of diaries as well as his miscellaneous writings is finally under way as part of a long overdue complete Weber edition - he liked to compare his work to that of a painter, referring to singers as portraying their roles "with fine brush strokes" or "like a fresco".

Yet it doesn't seem to have occurred to Weber to create his own opera libretti. "I am waiting in agony for a good libretto," he wrote in 1811. Driven to desperate measures, he even advertised for one. Out of the trio of his mature operas, which will be given in Edinburgh, the last two - Euryanthe and Oberon - have been blighted by plots that are either hopelessly convoluted or plain silly, making them virtually unstageable. Even the Edinburgh Festival Director Brian McMaster, a man of the theatre, seems relieved not to be staging these problematic works. "I think Weber created the most wonderful soundworlds," he says. "However, each opera is set within an overall narrative that doesn't really make sense - or even matter very much - but which invites directors to put a very subjective gloss on their staging that can get in the way of the music."

With his acute ear for the sounds of nature, his talent for re-creating the shape of tunes from both town and country, and his gift for exploiting new instrumental tone-colours, Weber became known as "the father of the orchestra". It is this sense of adventure in his orchestral as well as in his melodic effects - his establishment of Romantic horror music (or "circus trickery" as one critic unkindly described it) - that distinguishes the first of his major operas, Der Freischütz, also playing at Edinburgh. German Romanticism had stormed the stage door and the genre of German opera had been brought vividly to life.

Much of the work's popularity stemmed from the plot's legendary magic bullets, devilish pacts, natural vs supernatural, dark penetrated by light, and, of course, the sensationalism of the spooky Wolf's Glen scene. Here, Weber forged a new atmosphere of ghostly realism far removed from the picturesque pastorals of the 18th century. After the opera's premiere in 1821, productions sprang up throughout Europe and beyond. One traveller at the time reported hearing black slaves singing the Bridesmaids' Chorus on sugar plantations, while an advert for a servant, in a London newspaper, stated categorically that "no one who can whistle tunes from Der Freischütz need apply." So popular was the Huntsmen's Chorus that it was adapted to fit church carillons; today it would surely be a ubiquitous mobile phone ringtone.

It also attracted many corrupt versions as well as parodies. One of the oddest of these, credited to a Septimus Globus, advertised a version of Der Freischütz as "a new muse-sick-all and see-nick performance from the new German uproar by the celebrated Funnybear". It sent up the Wolf's Glen scene, adding firemen, fire engines and a nightwatchman complete with bucket - a gimmick that one of today's more excessive directors might easily have applied to Weber's original. The composer grew to detest the work, convinced that its success was to blame for the subsequent neglect of his next opera, Euryanthe.

In Euryanthe, Weber was lumbered with yet another feeble libretto, rooted in a world of chivalry and haunted by ghosts that never appear. Against the odds he was inspired to new symphonic heights in his score. The musicologist Donald Tovey, who declared him a genius, compared it favourably with Wagner's then unwritten music-drama Lohengrin. By contrast, one contemporary commentator asserted that it would only please "idiots, dolts, or footpads and assassins", and Schubert complained that "each scrap of tune is crushed like a mouse in a trap by the weighty orchestration". In Britain, apart from a production by English National Opera in the 1970s and another at Glyndebourne last summer, the colossal dramatic flaws in Euryanthe seem to deter all but the bravest or most foolhardy of stage directors.

Oberon, composed for Covent Garden, turned out to be Weber's swansong. Sadly, and through no fault of the composer's, it is, according to Warrack, "more of a pantomime, a musical entertainment, by a fumbling librettist". Moreover, in Tovey's opinion, the wordy book by Planché "murdered" the opera. Although Weber begged the librettist to send him the whole text, he found himself working from unexplained airs or random ensemble pieces, which dribbled in without any clues as to their context in the plot. It must have felt like composing by numbers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scottish Opera has not volunteered to revive its 1985 production of Oberon at Edinburgh. This version was commissioned from the novelist Anthony Burgess, who not only replaced the archaic expressions and ersatz Shakespeare of Planché's original, but also updated the story to involve hijackers and hostages in a futuristic Middle East. A staging that parked an aeroplane on the roof of Glasgow's Theatre Royal on the opening night only seemed to sink the already preposterous plot further into the mire, although Burgess was so taken with the music that he went on to arrange the overture to Oberon for guitar quartet. A year later, Frank Dunlop, in the third of the Edinburgh Festivals he directed, created an imaginative semi-staging of the opera on a tilting disc erected on the platform of the Usher Hall.

Sir Richard Armstrong, who conducts Scottish Opera's concert performance of Oberon, has pored over Weber's original 1826 version in the British Library, noting the composer's pencil markings."He could be both epic, explosive and mercurially light, and the music looks right forward to Wagner in the sense of motifs. It seems appropriate, since we're celebrating the Britishness of this piece, that we are performing it in English and also that we should include two additional arias, which are exquisite and scarcely never heard."

There will be those who continue to agree with Tovey's claim that, in Oberon, "Weber had poured his finest music into a pig-trough". But some newly written spoken links, and Armstrong's determination to interpret the score from the perspective of its own era, "as if it were being presented for the first time, instead of listened to and judged in the light of what came afterwards", should help to reveal what he describes as its "refreshing, brilliant and mesmeric qualities".

'Der Freischütz' is on tomorrow, 'Oberon' on Wednesday, 'Euryanthe' on Thursday, and a concert of Weber's orchestral and chamber music given by Thomas Zehetmair leading the Northern Sinfonia is on today, all at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000). Radio 3 will broadcast the concerts in the week beginning 13 September

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones