There can’t be many operas in which the heroine sings not a word. Auber’s La Muette de Portici has its place in the history books, both as the virtual origin of grand opéra and as a catalyst for the Belgian revolt against the Dutch in 1830. Weber’s first surviving opera is less familiar, and actually Silvana is not dumb but enjoined to silence; she does speak at the denouement. This live recording from 2010 was presumably made to mark the bicentenary of the first production in Frankfurt.
The plot hardly merits description, but here goes. Count Rudolph falls in love with the mysterious Silvana, who only responds with gestures. He doesn’t love Mechtilde, to whom he is betrothed; and she is in love with Albert von Cleeburg. When Albert claims her hand, revealing himself after victory in a tournament, her father Count Adelhart has him imprisoned: Albert is the son of Adelhart’s old enemy, who years before had abducted the count’s other daughter Ottilie, long presumed dead. Adelhart wants Mechtilde to marry Rudolph, so Silvana has to be eliminated; but, guess what, Silvana turns out to be Ottilie. Adelhart embraces his ‘dear, good daughter’ (titters from the audience at this point) and all is resolved satisfactorily.
The libretto by Weber’s friend Franz Karl Hiemer is ineptly constructed: Krips, Rudolph’s Papageno-like squire, is given three arias, after which he disappears from the action; Kurt and Clärchen sing only in a quartet with Albert and Mechtilde. But the music is well worth hearing. It’s particularly fascinating to spot anticipations of the later, mature composer. The huntsmen’s chorus is less striking than its equivalent in Der Freischütz but Weber deploys his four horns to thrilling effect. Rudolph’s first aria looks forward to Max’s ‘Durch die Wälder’ in the same opera, while in the characterisation of Count Adelhart there’s more than a touch of the villainous Lysiart in Euryanthe. The orchestration is delightful: particularly effective is Weber’s use of the oboe and the cello to represent Silvana’s unspoken feelings.
The singing is so-so. Ferdinand von Bothmer is effortful in places – mind you, he has to cope with such challenges as a two-octave leap from a bottom A flat – and Michaela Kaune is rather wild in Mechtilde’s coloratura. Detlef Roth is too soft-grained for Adelhart’s outbursts but he is effective when showing the character’s tender side. Simon Pauly makes a lively Krips; in the quartet, Ines Krapp is painfully sharp in an unaccompanied passage – and again, when it’s repeated. Chorus, orchestra and conductor are all fine. One oddity is that the singers not only recite the stage directions but describe the action. It’s a bit like Bluebottle in The Goon Show but without Peter Sellers’s funny voice.