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Chris Mullins
Opera Today, June 2009

The score can’t be said to boast any of Schubert’s immortal melodies, but it has some fine ones nonetheless. Arias, duets, trios, ensembles—the score may be a crazy quilt of “pieces,” but each in itself is tuneful and evocative. Nikolaus Harnoncourt…has a flair for Schubert, especially the dramatic minor-key passages, as well as the more rhythmically exciting passages. He leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in an excellent performance.

The singers get caught in the middle, with such fine music to sing and such dopey drama to enact. Director Jürgen Flimm gives the drama every opportunity to succeed. On Erich Wonder’s dark, atmospheric set, the singers move about as if actually motivated by recognizable human emotions. But the story is simply too thin and predictable. An exiled king worries over his noble son, who is in love with a woman who just happens to be the daughter of the man that deposed her lover’s father. It all ends in a sanctimonious bout of forgiveness and redemption, vaguely recalling Beethoven’s Fidelio. A clumsy translation doesn’t help matters for the non-German speaker. One example will serve: “Monster! Ha, avaunt!” Avaunt to be alone.

Recorded in 1997 at the Vienna Festival, the singers are all in fine, fresh voice. Made up as an old man, Thomas Hampson lays on the “feebleness” a bit much, but his voice is strong. Olaf Bär sings the “bad” king without letting his nefariousness mar the musical line. As the young lovers, Luba Orgonasova and Endrik Wottrich are attractive both vocally and personally.

Once seen, viewers may not be interested in returning to Alfonso und Estrella as a music drama. However, such are the pleasures of its score that this DVD is well worth considering, if no other opportunity can be found for enjoying its music.

John Yohalem
Opera News, June 2009

Something delectable is always happening, some felicitous melody taking an unexpected turn…We might be attending a lieder evening with orchestra—the pleasures are not dissimilar.

This staging by Jürgen Flimm, a 1997 performance at the Theater an der Wien (for Schubert’s bicentennial), is designed to make the static action as busy as possible—choruses make a show of moving on or off, the stage boasts multiple levels or rooms, and characters appear from behind hills and doors, or up from trenches. Luba Orgonasova sings Estrella with a pleasing, fruity vibrato, and Endrik Wottrich is her stalwart Alfonso. Olaf Bär and Thomas Hampson play their despairing and ruminating fathers. As former rivals intended to present, perhaps, rival approaches to old age—remorse for an ill-spent career set against devout resignation—these two singers put their lieder-singing mastery to good use in creating their characters. Alfred Muff makes a good impression in the role of wicked Adolfo, which can’t be easy—Schubert has given him little in the way of slimy melodrama to play. Chorus and orchestra sound luscious under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who seems determined to find all the juicy bites of Schubert hidden in this charming, puzzling score.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

When at the age of twenty-four Franz Schubert set out for a holiday with his poet friend, Franz von Schober, it was with the object of a joint collaboration in the writing of an opera, Alfonso und Estrella. Eventually completed in February 1822 it was submitted to the Karntnertortheatre in Vienna for consideration, but was rejected, and further attempts elsewhere met with the same response. It was still awaiting its premiere when Schubert died six years later. Maybe it was before its time, Schubert avoiding the use of recitatives that were usual at the time, or maybe it was the uninspiring story. It relates the story of Alfonso living with his father, Froila, who, unbeknown to him, is the rightful King of Leon, but whose throne had been usurped by Mauregato. The usurper’s daughter, Estrella, meets by chance with Alfonso and falls in love with him, while Adolfo the man she has rejected swears vengeance by leading a rebellion against her father. He is captured by Alfonso who is now united with Estrella as the new King and Queen. It has received a number of stagings, but few could possibly have compare with this 1997 production from Vienna mounted to mark the 200th anniversary of Schubert’s birth. It updates the composers concept of Spain in the 18th century to something more around the time of the Schubert’s life, the staging by the director, Jurgen Flimm, being atmospheric but frugal. He knew that with little help this superb cast would make it an unforgettable experience. Headed by the young Endrik Wottrich as a fluid and liquid Alfonso; Thomas Hampson as his aging father, and the great lieder singer, Olaf Bär, as an imposing Mauregato, the stage is often dominated by Alfred Muff whose Adolfo looks every inch the successful leader of a victorious army. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Chamber Orchestra of Europe are both equally outstanding, and though one must regret Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s decision to make cuts, he conducts a nicely unhurried performance. Sound quality is very good, and the filming is outstanding.

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