Meyerbeer’s Feldlager in Schlesien resurrected in Bonn
Quite an event at the Bonn Oper: the first performance since the 19th century of an early work by Meyerbeer, written to celebrate the reopening of the Berlin opera house following its destruction by fire, but also to honour Kaiser Frederick William IV by taking as its theme the life of his distinguished predecessor Frederick the Great. A curious piece since though fundamentally a Singspiel recounting his near capture in the Silesian War and, aided by a sympathetic family group, his escape, it glorifies with pomp and circumstance the military prowess of the Prussians. Not an easy task to present in the 21st century, particularly as Covid-related illnesses forced the cancellation of the early performances, but also because its preparation coincided with the outbreak of the Ukrainian war.
All credit to the Bonn company for managing to surmount the obstacles and to do so with much panache. The key to success lay in the bold decision to turn the militaristic, jingoistic and, as such, almost unperformable, Second Act into its opposite: a denunciation of military aggression. In Jakob Peters-Messer’s striking production, this was achieved primarily by caricaturing the posturing of the soldiery. But the impact was enhanced by moving the action from the stage to the auditorium and closely surrounding the military performers with the spectators. The result was something akin to what must have been experienced at the Nuremburg rallies which made the applause which greeted Meyerbeer’s brilliantly written choruses all the more ironic.
Dramatically and musically, Acts One and Two were lighter affairs, focussing on the exploits of the family caught up in the Silesian War, but the young composer gave hints of what was to come in his subsequent career by some playful bel canto arias and delightful, vocally grateful, ensembles. Appropriately, his writing for virtuoso solo flute was well to the force, since this instrument reflected the cultural achievements of Frederick the Great, nicely counterbalancing the latter’s military stature. The conductor Dirk Kaftan successfully captured the intimacy of the “family” scenes, while relishing the opportunity to let rip with the massive forces involved in the extravagant military showpiece.
You may be surprised to learn that Kaiser Frederick did not appear on stage, but representation of ruling royalty was not allowed in the mid-19th century. In his absence, his thoughts and actions were communicated by a narrator (superbly performed by Michal Ihnow) who also drew together the straggling threads of the plot. In theatrical terms this imparted a Brechtian sense of alienation to the proceedings, reinforcing Peters-Messer’s interpretation of the piece which required some distancing from its original purpose.
Ein Feldlager in Schlesien does not call for illustrious voices but, in what was a long evening, the singers from the local company all performed creditably. The mainstay of the family group, Captain Saldorf, was portrayed by Tobias Schabel as a rounded, sympathetic spokesman for peace and common-sense, his solid bass rising to the occasional outburst. As his gypsy foster-daughter, Elena Gorshunova trilled joyously when good fortune was in the ascendant, but could plaintively darken her tone as mystic powers foretold evil. Her lover Konrad, the sweet-sounding Finnish tenor Jussi Myllys, displayed a fetching sense of humour, as well as serviceable courage.
More than just a worthy disinterment of a long-forgotten piece, this was an evening of bold, imaginative musical theatre.