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Oberon [Oberon, or The Elf King’s Oath]locked

  • Clive Brown

Romantische Oper in three acts, j306, by Carl Maria von Weber to a libretto by James Robinson Planché; after Christoph Martin Wieland’s poem Oberon; London, Covent Garden, 12 April 1826.

Oberon King of the Elves




Reiza daughter of Haroun al Rachid


Sir Huon of Bordeaux Duke of Guienne


Sherasmin Huon’s squire


Namouna Fatima’s grandmother


Fatima Reiza’s attendant


Haroun al Rachid Caliph of Baghdad


Babekan a Saracen prince


Abdallah a corsair


Two Mermaids


Roshana wife of Almanzor


Almanzor Emir of Tunis


Fairies, ladies, knights, slaves, mermaids etc.

Setting Fairyland, the banks of the Tigris, Africa and France in medieval times

On 18 August 1824 Weber received a letter from Charles Kemble in London, inviting him to compose a new opera and to come to England to direct it during the following season, along with performances of Der Freischütz and Preciosa. He was in an advanced stage of consumption and his doctor warned him that if he went to London he could expect only a few more months, or perhaps weeks, of life. But concern for his family’s financial future overrode concern for his own health, and three days later he accepted the commission. Kemble offered him the subjects Faust or Oberon and, having chosen the latter, Weber asked for the libretto to be sent to him as soon as possible. By the beginning of December Planché’s libretto had not arrived, and it became clear that the opera would have to be postponed until the 1826 season. Finally, on 30 December, the first act arrived, to be followed by the second on 18 January and the third on 1 February. In order to set the text satisfactorily Weber had already begun an intensive course in English in October 1824 (he took 153 lessons in all), and was thus able to correspond with Planché in English. His letters show his concern over the nature of the libretto, so different from those he was used to; on 19 February he wrote to Planché:

The intermixing of so many principal actors who do not sing, the omission of the music in the most important moments – all these things deprive our Oberon the title of an opera, and will make him unfit for all other Theatres in Europe; which is a very bad thing for me, but – passons la dessus.

He accepted that, given English taste, there was no alternative; but had he lived he would certainly have revised Oberon, adding recitatives, to suit the German stage.

By the time Weber left for England in mid-February 1826 he had completed the bulk of the opera. Travelling via Paris, he reached England on 4 March. Rehearsals began on 9 March, but several of the solo numbers were still lacking. He finished the remaining portions amid an exhausting round of rehearsals, concerts and social engagements. On 23 March he wrote the rondo ‘I revel in hope and joy’ (no.20) for the immensely popular tenor John Braham, who was cast in the part of Huon; three days later he completed Reiza’s cavatina ‘Mourn thou, poor heart’ (no.19) for Mary Anne Paton and, in another three days, Fatima’s ‘O Araby’ (no.16) for Lucia Elizabeth Vestris. Having rearranged the chorus ‘For thee hath beauty’ (no.21) for female voices, Weber imagined that the opera, apart from the overture, was complete; but Braham requested a substitute for ‘From boyhood trained’ (no.5), which he found too high in tessitura, and Weber grudgingly composed ‘Ah! ’tis a glorious sight to see’ on 6 April. He finished the splendid overture three days before the première. At the last minute, however, he was obliged to write ‘Ruler of this awful hour’ (no.12 a) for Braham, who wanted another piece to show off a different quality in his voice.

The première on 12 April was a triumph; the overture and all the individual numbers were encored and Weber was loudly called for at the conclusion. By this stage, though, his health was completely shattered, and less than two months later he died, on the night before his planned return to Germany.

Despite the circumstances of its composition, Oberon contains some of Weber’s most delightful music, which has assured the work a permanent, if peripheral, place in the repertory, even though its overall structure is far from satisfactory. In 1860 Planché produced a revised version in Italian which had recitatives by Weber’s pupil Julius Benedict and incorporated some music from Euryanthe. There have been many other arrangements, including one with recitative by Franz Wüllner and one by Gustav Brecher with sections of instrumental music by Mahler (based on material from the opera) to accompany the dialogue.

The brilliant overture opens atmospherically with Oberon’s horn-call, which acts as a motif throughout the work.

Act 1 Oberon’s bower A chorus of fairies keeps guard over the sleeping Oberon (no.1, ‘Light as fairy foot can fall’). The number begins with an inversion of the horn-call; syncopation in the voice parts and delicate staccato interjections from wind and strings characterize the chorus. Puck dismisses the fairies and explains that Oberon and Titania have quarrelled over whether man or woman is the more inconstant in love; they have vowed not to be reunited until they find a couple who are constant through adversity. In an impassioned C minor aria, ‘Fatal vow’ (no.2), in which the horn-call again underlies the melodic invention, Oberon deplores the situation. Puck informs him that Charlemagne has condemned Huon to go to Baghdad, where he must kill the man on the caliph’s right hand, then kiss the caliph’s daughter and marry her. Puck discloses the sleeping Huon with his squire, Sherasmin. Oberon shows Huon, in a dream, a vision of the caliph’s daughter, Reiza, imploring Huon to come to her. Her short guitar song, ‘Oh why art thou sleeping’ (no.3), also begins with the horn-call. The vision fades, and Oberon wakes them. He pledges his help and gives Huon a fairy horn to call him to his aid. He also gives him a magic goblet which will spontaneously fill with wine but will burn the lips of the impure. (The goblet was excised from Planché’s 1860 revision of the text.) Fairies are summoned and in the ensuing ensemble, ‘Honour and joy’ (no.4), they transport Huon and Sherasmin to Baghdad.

The banks of the Tigris Huon saves Prince Babekan from a lion, but when Babekan drinks from the goblet it burns his lips; he attacks his rescuers but is driven off. Namouna tells them of Reiza’s impending marriage to Babekan and of her vision of a knight who is to rescue her from it. (Planché removed the incidents involving Babekan and Namouna in 1860.) Huon reflects that his commitment to knightly honour has now been joined by the emotion of love. He was originally intended to sing ‘From boyhood trained’ at this point, but in the première this was replaced by the rather bombastic D major aria, ‘Ah! ’tis a glorious sight to see’.

The palace of Haroun al Rachid In the harem Reiza tells Fatima she would rather die than marry Babekan, and anxiously waits for the rescuer she has seen in a vision. In the finale, ‘Haste gallant knight’, she urges speed on her deliverer, her opening phrase once more recalling the horn motif. Fatima returns with news of Huon’s arrival, and then the harem guard is heard approaching, chanting to the accompaniment of an Arabian melody which Weber took from Carsten Niebuhr’s Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien (1774). The number ends with Reiza anxiously awaiting rescue.

Act 2 A magnificent salon in the palace of Haroun al Rachid The act opens with a B minor chorus of praise, ‘Glory to the caliph’ (no.7), to which Weber, using bold orchestral unisons, gives an exotic flavour. After Reiza is brought in for her marriage to Babekan, to the accompaniment of woodwind, triangle and tambourine (no.8), Huon and Sherasmin rush in. Babekan confronts Huon, but is killed. Before the slaves can attack, Huon sounds his horn and they are paralysed, allowing Huon and Sherasmin to escape with Reiza and Fatima (no.9 a). When Huon has routed the guards in the palace garden, Oberon appears and conjures up the port of Ascalon and a ship to take them to Greece (nos.9 b and 9 c; in 1860 Planché shortened and rearranged much of the foregoing). Huon and Reiza depart, while Sherasmin woos Fatima; she sings the aria ‘A lonely Arab maid’ (no.10). Huon returns, urging haste, and they sing of their buoyant hopes in the quartet ‘Over the dark blue waters’ (no.11), which includes the main allegro theme of the overture. In the solo and chorus ‘Spirits of air and earth and sea’ (no.12) Puck summons the spirits of the four elements to wreck Huon’s ship; an extensive orchestral postlude illustrates the storm. After the shipwreck Huon prays for Reiza’s recovery (no.12 a, ‘Ruler of this awful hour’). When she revives, Huon goes in search of help. Reiza, awed by the sea, sings the demanding recitative and aria ‘Ocean! thou mighty monster’ (no.13), in which orchestral figurations from the storm recur. During the aria a ship comes into sight and she attracts the attention of its crew. However, it is filled with pirates, led by Abdullah, who abduct her, leaving Huon unconscious and bound. Oberon appears, to the sound of the magic horn (no.14); he summons Puck and instructs him to take Huon to the house of the gardener Ibrahim in Tunis in seven days’ time. (In Planché’s 1860 version Oberon sings ‘From boyhood trained’ over the unconscious Huon at this point, with the text changed from the first to the third person.) In the finale, ‘Oh! ’tis pleasant to float on the sea’ (no.15), mermaids and fairies appear and sing irrelevantly, but beautifully, of their joy.

Act 3 Outside Ibrahim’s house in Tunis The enslaved Fatima bewails her fate, singing nostalgically ‘O Araby!’ (no.16). Sherasmin, now married to her, enters and together they sing of their childhood (no.17, ‘On the banks of the sweet Garonne’). Puck causes Huon’s appearance. Fatima tells him that Reiza has just been brought to Tunis and Sherasmin urges him to disguise himself; they join in the trio ‘And must I then dissemble?’ (no.18).

Almanzor’s palace in Tunis Inside the harem Almanzor welcomes Reiza, but she expresses her sadness in the F minor cavatina ‘Mourn thou poor heart’ (no.19). Reiza communicates with Huon by means of a bouquet of flowers, and Huon gives utterance to his feelings in the rondo ‘I revel in hope and joy’ (no.20). Roshana, who is jealous because of her husband Almanzor’s passion for Reiza, tries to induce Huon to kill him and marry her; she summons her slaves to help persuade him in the chorus and ballet ‘For thee hath beauty’ (no.21). He still refuses, and when Almanzor arrives Huon is seized and led away. Meanwhile Sherasmin has found the horn. Just as Huon is about to be burnt at the stake, the horn sounds and the finale, ‘Hark! what notes are swelling’ (no.22), begins. Weber based the opening section of this number on a danse turque from La Borde’s Essai sur la musique. At first all the slaves begin to dance and then, at a louder blast on the horn, Oberon and Titania appear and the Tunisians flee. Oberon tells the lovers that their trials are at an end, and they are transported to Charlemagne’s palace. An extended instrumental march accompanies a procession of king and courtiers. Huon kneels before Charlemagne and explains that he has accomplished his mission. The opera ends with a chorus of praise for Huon and Reiza.

It is a remarkable testimony to Weber’s operatic genius that, notwithstanding the unmitigated awfulness of its libretto, Oberon has maintained a toe-hold in the repertory. To a very considerable extent he was able to compensate for triviality and inconsequence in the libretto by skilful musical treatment. The imaginative and expressive quality of his writing for the principals invests them with a depth of characterization far beyond the implications of the text, while his sensitivity to colour and atmosphere in the orchestral and concerted numbers lifts the work above the level of shallow pantomime suggested by its libretto. Above all, however, Weber was able to lend an illusion of coherence to the picaresque farrago of nonsense with which Planché had presented him, by his subtle use of the horn-call as a recurrent musical motif; this technique, which he had already applied in Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, plays an important part in rescuing Oberon from the oblivion to which its libretto so nearly consigned it.

For further illustration see Vestris [née Bartolozzi], Lucia Elizabeth.