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

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