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8.223844-45 - WEBER: Silvana
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826)
"Stimulated and encouraged by the friendly sympathy of the excellent (Franz) Danzi, I
wrote an opera, Silvana, on (Franz) Hiemers's new version of my earlier Waldmädchen". So Weber noted in the Autobiographical Sketch which he wrote for a friend in 1818. He had been in Stuttgart at the time, 1808-10, working as secretary to the King of Württemberg 's younger brother Duke Ludwig and leading a fairly dissolute life, but finding enough time to do some composing. It was Danzi who recalled him to his vocation and encouraged him to refashion his earliest attempt at opera, a tale of a dumb woodland girl, into this new form. The original has disappeared, and was presumably destroyed: there is no telling how much of the music survived, especially as to some extent the new opera reflects its Stuttgart origin in its careful writing for the members of the royal company. Rudolf was originally composed for the tenor Johann Baptist Krebs, Mechthilde for Weber's close friend Gretchen Lang, who wanted a sentimental-romantic part. However, Weber was expelled from Stuttgart on a trumped up charge, and the actual premiere took place in Frankfurt in 1810, with Gretchen Lang as Mechthilde and, as Silvana, the young singer who now captured his affections and eventually became his wife, Caroline Brandt.
Along with his own originality and instinct for the stage, Weber had acquired from his surroundings a strong sense of what was effective, and at this stage of his career he was still leaning heavily on the conventions of eighteenth century Singspiel. Krips remains one of the bumbling figures familiar to audiences of the day from the operas of Hiller, Reichardt and Neefe, among a score of others, speaking in the popular accent of German folk-song without contributing much of his own. His Arietta draws its engaging character less from the plain melody than (typically of much that was to come from Weber) from the orchestration, which consists of lightly scored strings with an obbligato flute and bassoon two octaves apart. Krips's Tempo d'un Tedesco has a lively violin obbligato dancing around the cheerful tune: this drinking-song, another of the staples of earlier Singspiel, anticipated other Weber songs and arias by being taken up as a popular beer-cellar number.
Adelhart is a more ambitious piece of character drawing. Though not yet developed as the villain type which Weber was to characterize in Caspar and Lysiart, he is of their number; and though (another inheritance of earlier German opera) occasionally shaken by violent and unconvincing fits of coloratura, he does show genuine affection for Mechthilde. She, on the other hand, remains a somewhat shadowy figure; the 22-year-old Weber does not seem to have had a very clear idea of how to portray an oppressed woman whose nature is sympathetic but who nevertheless stands in the way of the hero and heroine's happiness. She flowers most in the Quartet, when with Tristan-like cries of 'Mechthilde! Geliebter!' she and Albert fall into one anothers' arms and join their retainers Kurt and Clärchen in declarations of love. Weber was wise not to give her and Albert a love duet, since such a luxury is obviously denied Rudolf and his mute lover Silvana. Rudolf himself is quite well characterized: his wooing of Silvana has real musical tenderness, the natural complement to his reluctance to hurt Mechthilde and indeed the product of a more introspective nature than operatic knights generally permit themselves. Like the others, he shows Weber's innate tendency to think of melodic lines in instrumental rather than vocal terms.
The whole nature of the opera tends in this direction. As soon as the characters find themselves in the open air, new invention breathes into them; and this is largely through the woodland scenery which Weber was able to depict through his genius for instrumental sound. The very opening reveals the flair that was 10 be fully realised in Der Freischütz: a soft., slowly stirring melody dissolves into a mysterious tremolo over which horns call from different quarters of the stage; and the arrival of the huntsmen is the signal for a cheerful chorus. Again, the same scene in the forest at the start of Ac t 3 produces an impressive storm, all swirling strings, booming, syncopated horns and flashing piccolo and flute, but with the effects made thematic and built into the music of the apprehensive chorus of retainers and the outraged and desperate Albert. Weber is feeling his way towards the Romantic identification of personal mood and natural phenomena.
Silvana herself is, of course, an intensely Romantic conception. The huntsmen sing that on I y in the woods can they find contentment; she embodies this allure and fulfilment, so much so that Krips's first reaction on catching sight of her is to believe her to be a wood-spirit. She is a child of nature, a creature of the natural instinct and untainted simplicity that had somewhere been lost in the Enlightenment, elusive and fascinating, remote, and shy but (as Rudolf finds) accessible to man when he woos her with an open heart. Her dumbness can be conquered and her voice set free; this also gives her an exciting oddity, and of course she also acts as a powerful al1raction to a composer with a stronger instinct for instruments than the human voice. She is characterized mostly with the oboe and the cello, generally representing the skittish and the tender sides of her nature. After she has first stolen out of her cave, over cautiously moving string chords, it is to an oboe polacca, already a popular Romantic dance and one which was often to delight Weber, that she dances about, picking berries; but when Rudolf questions her, it is the cello which graphically 'speaks' her reluctance to leave a place she has grown to love. His suggestion that a human love - for himself, in fact - might be substituted is met with a tender string phrase in which we catch a foretaste of Wagner's Sieglinde. The rest of their conversation is carried on by way of pantomime, cleverly illustrated in the cello, until Silvana breaks once more into a nimble dance to a tune played by oboe and flute over the rustic sound of other wind instruments which only much later is 'humanized' with the additon of strings to prepare for Rudolf's drinking-song.
This technique is more fully developed in the scene of Silvana's awakening in Rudolf's room. She stirs out of sleep, with hushed strings as Rudolf steadily gazes on her, then, to a woodwind figure from the overture, tries a mirror out to brief, puzzled woodwind scraps, makes a nimble by-play to a gawky oboe phrase before going into another of her lively dances, this time on the flute. With Rudolf's passionate declaration, she comes her nearest to actual utterance. It is the 'oboe' side of her as well as the 'cello' side that Rudolf is wooing; and when he begs her to answer his avowal of love, if not with her voice then with her eyes, it is impossible not to see the feminine sparkle in them as the oboe keeps him in suspense for just a moment before summoning the resources of full woodwind to reply ardently with his own phrase. Passionate scales now unite with the throb of the horns and bassoons, and though the oboe's more decorative answer to the repeated question is still reassuring, she has a cadenza of considerable independence before Rudolf is permitted to break into his rapturous 'Mein! Mein!'
Silvana is, then, a mixture between simple, even naive folkiness and ambitious coloratura arias, between enchanting strokes of Weber's own imagination and the invasion of convention. It foreshadows much that was to lie ahead in Weber’s music and in that of his contemporaries and successors, both the knightly world of Euryanthe and the simple open-air elements of Der Freischütz, attempting a marriage between two basic Romantic concepts they represent, the noble emotions of medieval chivalry and the dwindling purity of the forest. It is also an opera with a flavour entirely its own, creating and inhabiting a world with the touch that betokens a young opera composer recognising his vocation.
Count Rudolph von Helfenstein, his liege-man Fust von Grimmbach and their followers are enjoying a bear-hunt. Count Rudolph, however, is distracted, seeking the love of a woman. Mechthilde, daughter of Count Adelhart, is promised to him, but she does not love him. Krips, Rudolph's squire, tries to cheer him up. In a nearby cave he finds w hat he thinks is a terrifying forest-devil. The Count bravely enters the cave, where he finds the mute Silvana, dressed only in skins and leaves, and falls in love with her. Silvana shyly reciprocates his advances, but is unwilling to go with him, not wanting to leave the surroundings she knows. On I y by a trick does Rudolph succeed in carrying her out of the forest and bringing her to Count Adelhart's castle, where he is a guest.
Count Adelhart urges his daughter Mechthilde to marry Rudolph von Helfenstein. Since his mortal enemy Hanns von Cleeburg apparently robbed him of his second daughter Ottilie, Mechthilde has been the only surviving child of the family and a suitable marriage is essential. Mechthilde is divided in her mind. She wants to obey her father, but she loves Albert von Cleeburg, whom her father, because of the family quarrel, will never accept as a son-in-law. Her maid Klärchen manages to arrange a secret meeting between the couple, not without advantage to herself, since she is loved by Albert's squire, Kurt.
Meanwhile Silvana wakes up in Rudolph's room, in Adelhart's castle. Rudolph tells her of his love for her. At a festive tournament at the castle a strange knight appears. He wins the contest and, pressed by those present, reveals his identity: he is Albert von Cleeburg. In spite of the intercession of Rudolph and Mechthilde, Count Adelhart has him seized at once. Only the armed intervention of Rudolph makes it possible for Albert to escape.
Albert and his followers have gathered in the forest, where there is a thunder-storm. There they come upon Ulrich, once in Count Adelharts's service, who seeks in despair for his foster-daughter Silvana, whom he had found in the forest, suckled by wolves. Silvana is in fact Adelhart's daughter, exposed in the forest by her jealous father, who had groundlessly accused his wife of infidelity with Albert's father. Meanwhile Count Adelhart plots revenge. Rudolph is his guest and he wants him to marry his daughter. but the latter only has eyes for the mute Silvana. Adelhart’s plan to murder Silvana is only prevented at the last moment by Rudolph and Mechthilde. Then Albert appears and brings the happy news: Silvana is Ottilie. Adelhart's daughter and sister of Mechthilde. A birthmark and a diamond cross that once belonged to Ottilie.s mother convince the angry Count. Silvana’s foster-father Ulrich frees the girl from the command of silence that he had imposed to protect her from strangers. Adelhart now gives his daughters permission to marry: Ottilie/Silvana will be united with Rudolph, Mechthilde with Albert. The old family feud is at an end and the happy outcome is duly celebrated.
Translated by Keith Anderson
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