After an entire century in absentia from the American public eye, Carl Maria von Weber's 1823 dark opera "Euryanthe" is finally seeing its first stateside revival since curtain call at the Metropolitan in 1914. The string of performances at Bard College, July 25 through August 3, is part of Bard SummerScape, which this year celebrates one of Weber's contemporaries: Viennese-composer Franz Schubert. "We decided to set the opera in a gothic Victorian world to emphasize the repression of female sexuality in a very patriarchal world," explains director Kevin Newbury. The influential German Romantic opera chronicles the journey of the title character (played by soprano Ellie Dehn), who is accused of infidelity in the Victorian age. "Think The Scarlet Letter meets Edgar Allen Poe and Tim Burton. Hopefully the setting will emphasize this theme of repressed female sexuality and the male fear of it. For us, nature represents jealousy and envy and the architecture of the home represents love and security. How these two worlds blend together was a driving force in our design."
For Newbury, who had previously helmed a modernized update of Richard Strauss's "Die Liebe der Danae" at the 2011 Bard SummerScape, working on "Euryanthe" proved to be an experience of discovery as both an auteur and opera enthusiast. "While I was familiar with Weber's work, I had never heard 'Euryanthe' until Bard asked me to take a look at it," he admits. "As soon as I heard the work, I knew I wanted to direct it." He also understands why it has taken 100 years for the work to see a revival here in the US, given the multidimensional approach Weber took while creating the storyline, which is filled with many unexpected twists and turns that make the opera a lot trickier to transfer into a live setting. "Euryanthe has what many consider to be a problematic libretto, complete with certain unstageable coups de theatres and potentially confusing plot points," Newbury explains. "It was a fun challenge to find solutions to these problems. I think the centennial certainly factored into the decision to present the opera and the work certainly fits into the rarely performed category that Bard is famous for producing."
And while the opera was originally conspired over 190 years ago, the subjects of public shaming and the scrutiny of women are unfortunately as prevalent today as they were back then—something that particularly struck a chord with Newbury on a thematic level. "The piece feels wildly contemporary to me," he says. "In many parts of the world, the question of what a woman does with her body is still the source of great conflict and suffering."
Though he had worn many hats as a composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist, and even a critic, it was his opera works that immortalized Carl Maria Von Weber as one of the founding fathers of Romanticism. And "Euryanthe" remains his crown jewel, particularly distinctive in its development of the leitmotif, a recurring musical phrase associated with a singular character. For Newbury, such historic significance only increases the momentum for its upcoming revival. "I think it is an incredibly exciting time in opera," Newbury says. "There are many innovative companies, composers, and directors on the scene. I think audiences often crave the rich trajectory of a night at the opera—especially when the cast features good actors, and the production is theatrical and visually and emotionally engaging."