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Charlemagne (Grant Dickson, left) holds court in the 2000 Buxton Festival production of Schubert's 'Fierrabras'. Photo (c) Tina Foster

In Fierrabras, some magical playing under conductor Lionel Friend produced the clearest possible evidence that Schubert poured fine music into his neglected operas. If drama was lacking (although not wholly) in both the libretto and the stage moves, there was plenty of it in the score. A slightly tinny, raspy start from the strings looked to bode ill. Instead, what followed was pure heaven. In particular, Friend managed the frequent, almost Verdian pace changes ably, while the clarity of much of the playing was of a very high order indeed, from the opening spinning chorus to Schubert's elaborately built finale.

A scene from the 2000 Buxton Festival production of Schubert's 'Fierrabras' with Anne Dawson (soprano) as Emma. Photo (c) Tina Foster

'Driving' was a key word, for the Act I soldiers' chorus was thrusting and riveting, and the trio near the close of Act I, heralding Charlemagne's disastrous intervention, brought some thrilling music with it. So too the Act 2 hunting chorus and the dramatic, determined aria of Florinda (the superb Christine Bunning), with exciting, hyperactive lower strings, woodwind and brass. At the other end of the scale, the clarinet solos -- for instance, following the 'confiding' duet between Roland (David Stephenson) and Fierrabras (the first-rate tenor Thomas Randle, seen recently as Essex in Gloriana and Judas in Birtwistle's The Last Supper (see 'Dramatic Tableaux', Music and Vision, 21 November 2000)) were worthy of Stadler; the plucked middle strings for Eginhard's serenade of Emma, superb; the hushed, nostalgic, unaccompanied prisoner's chorus a real show-stopper (and pure Fidelio); Emma's maids cavorting, musically supple and athletic; and the orchestral playing in the reconciliation scene quite mesmerising. This orchestral team had learned the score sufficiently to penetrate deep below the notes. Sadly all five voices yelled Schubert's Act I quintet, and Fierrabras's final acquiescence is pure Gilbert and Sullivan; but what a suite someone could fashion from this magnificent score.

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Copyright © 2 December 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK







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