FROM first to last the overture is in the most intimate sympathy with the subject. Every picture of the drama is mirrored in it : the world of elves, fays, mermaids, and elemental spirits ; the pomp and pride of chivalry and romance; glowing love struggling against slavery, elemental night, separation, and death; and the might and glamour of oriental enchantment.
The opening notes of the Adagio are given to Oberon’s magic horn, notably alone and taking us at once into the realm of enchantment. The muted strings follow with a melody and harmonies that suggest a gentle yet deep melancholy. Once during this phrase of the strings, the flutes and clarinets suddenly introduce a short figure, evidently the trip-ping of the fairies; and so the strings proceed until, after a short pause, the clear chord of D-major is pronounced by trumpets and horns, standing out alone and representing the joyous element of knightly power. Immediately there follows an Allegro con fuoco, neither violent nor over-excited, but perfectly fulfilling the requirements of the tempo. Into it are woven brief episodes that occasionally moderate that fire. While beautiful as an independent composition, as the instrumental prelude to an opera it challenges every overture in existence. Most successfully it outlines to both mind and senses the spirit and purpose of the entire opera. In its beautifully-woven web of melodies are em-bodied all the musical ideas to be met with in the subsequent scenes, and although full of charm and grace and subtle fascination, it can only be thoroughly appreciated after a hearing of the poetic drama. Although composed after the work, of course, it is written with such ease and naturalness, and is so perfectly spontaneous and fresh, that it gives the idea that Weber must have thrown it off in a mood of inspiration instead of consciously writing a thematic preface to his fairy opera.
Wagner considered the use of the magic horn in this Overture, with that of the trumpet in the Leonore Overture, No. 3, and the trombone in the overture to Die Zauberflote, the three most beautiful examples of linking the musical idea with the dramatic work in the whole rêpertoire of opera.
AcT I. The curtain rises on Oberon’s bower. The King of Fairyland is lying upon a bed of roses in restless slumber. The introduction, Andante quasi allegretto, played sempre tutto pianissimo possible, translates us at once into the realm of midsummer night. We hear the tripping figure that was introduced at the sixth bar of the overture. A band of elves and fays lightly hover on tiptoe about Oberon’s couch. Their chorus, Light as fairy foot can fall, interspersed with solo passages and scored without bass, invites the fountains and zephyrs to still their plashing and sighing. The gnat and the bee must be banished, and all contribute to the peace and rest of the Fairy King. The whispering undertones of their three-part chorus produce a sense of absolute grace and tenderness. Puck (contralto) enters and chides their loitering. He is deaf to their protests that they were only watching over their master’s slumbers, and dismisses them to their tasks. So Oberon at last is sleeping for the first time since the quarrel with Titania ! And was there ever a tiff over such a trifle! Whether man or woman was the more constant! And now they have vowed separation until a pair of lovers prove faithful ” through weal and woe, mid flood and chains and fire; unmoved by pleasure and unbent by pain ! ” But Oberon stirs, and Puck stands aside until he knows in what kind of mood his master is.
Oberon wakes : he is molto agitato and passionato, as the instruments inform us before he utters a word. His tenor aria, Fatal vow, shows how bitterly he regrets his rash oath ; not even slumber brings solace. When he ceases, his sighs are repeated on the oboes and bassoons. Puck shows himself. Where has the truant been since cockcrow ? He has been round the globe in search of something to console his King. Among other adventures, he was at Charlemagne’s Court where sentence was being pronounced upon Sir Huon of Bordeaux who had slain the wrathful emperor’s son in an ambush set by him for Sir Huon. The latter must go to Bagdad and, on a day of festival, slay him who sits upon Haroun’s right hand and then kiss and claim the Caliph’s daughter as his bride. Only a faithful squire attends him upon the perilous quest Oberon is interested. Quick, Puck, bring them here in deep sleep ! Puck disappears. The Fairy King will be-friend Sir Huon ; perhaps the knight may help Oberon in turn. A flowery bank rises with Puck beside the sleeping knight (tenor) and Sherasmin, his squire (baritone). Oberon examines Sir Huon. Yes, he will serve ! His heart is untouched, but he is capable of deep and true love. Let him and the Eastern princess see each other in mutual vision ! Spirits, work the spell ! The magic horn sounds, and immediately clouds arise and then dissipate, and we see the interior of a kiosk. Rezia (soprano) is sitting in melancholy upon a divan with a lute in her hand. To a guitar accompaniment, she calls Guienne to the rescue of beauty, O why art thou sleeping, Sir Huon, the brave. The simple romance lends itself well to the declamation. The horn sounds again and the vision disappears amid clouds. Oberon awakes the children of the earth. Sir Huon’s cry, ” Stay, loveliest ! ” is followed by one of astonishment. Oberon reassures him and introduces himself. He promises aid and protection, and presents the magic horn that will always summon him. ” Be bold and constant!” At a wave of Oberon’s wand the. fairies appear to the tripping notes of the wood-wind.
There is another three-part chorus (there are no bass voices in fairyland), Honour and joy to the true and the brave. It is quite stirring and martial in character. The Elfin King will befriend them, but the fairy’s curse shall cling to the traitor and coward and slave ! Huon asks to be led to the foot of the unbeliever’s throne without delay, and to exhibit his prowess. Softly, to the flutes, clarinets, and bassoons, Oberon sings, The sun is kissing the purple tide. It ‘s many a sunset to Bagdad, but a wave of a lily wand, and behold ! Horns, drums, clarinets and trombones are the musical machinery of the transformation. Clouds arise and then disperse, and we are on the banks of the Tigris with Bagdad in the distance. But where is the beauteous maiden ? ” Fear not ! ” replies Oberon. Then comes a fine chorus of encouragement, Allegro con fuoco. Oberon and the fairies promise Huon honour and renown, and then disappear. The knight and squire are bewildered, and still expect the minarets to fade away; and yet the lady must really exist ! Sherasmin advises his master to keep only half his promise, never mind about killing the infidel ! Huon, however, esteems his honour beyond his life and love, and will redeem his pledge. Moreover, he is quite at home amid carnage, and the battle-cry is his favourite song. Then to a galloping accompaniment of horns, bassoons, and trombones, he sings a martial aria, Oh, ‘t is a glorious sight to see the charge of the Christian cavalry. This aria is in three sections : the first and third are full of fire and brilliancy, while the second is soft and tender, with beautiful song-subjects. The transition between the second and third is especially beautiful. The paynim maids must mourn, but joy to the high-born dames of France. Twine the wreath, fill the cup, strike the harp, Victory !
The scene changes to a vestibule in the harem over-looking the Tigris, which gleams in the moonlight through a balustrade in the background. Rezia is confiding in her attendant, Fatima (mezzo soprano). She would rather wed a serpent than Prince Babekan. She dreamt that she was a fawn and he was hunting her through a forest when a young foreign knight appeared and rescued her. She is sure it is fate, and it is vain for Fatima to try to explain it away. But she has a remedy ; either love or death shall rescue her; and she exhibits a dagger, to Fatima’s terror. Knocking is heard, and Fatima goes to see who it is, after receiving assurances that nothing precipitate will be done. In her absence, the finale begins with Rezia’s recitative and aria, Haste, gallant knight ! The splendid instrumentation enforces the beautiful vocal part and intensifies Rezia’s impassioned protestations of devotion to the hero of her vision. He is her lord, she lives for him alone. The oboe now is in great agitation, and Fatima hastily returns. A duet follows in which Rezia learns that her dream lover has arrived. He came to old Namouna’s cot and heard of Rezia’s vision as Fatima had repeated it. Now he vows to rescue Rezia or die. Joy !! her knight is near her ! the music shares her ecstasy. Their delight is interrupted by the drums and triangle that introduce the march of the harem guard as they pass through, headed by Mesrour, to announce the hour of retiring. Oboes, clarinets and bassoons on the stage play the characteristic march (a genuine Arabian melody taken from Niebuhr’s Travels). The chorus of eunuchs and female slaves sing, Now the evening watch is set. Rezia’s delightful melodious strains, cautioning herself to restrain her raptures, serve as obbligato with wonderful effect. The whole movement is full of local colour.
AcT II. The Caliph is sitting in state in his magnificent palace with Prince Babekan on his right hand. Sheiks, great officers, guards, eunuchs, etc., are in attendance. The great male chorus, allegro feroce ma pesante, sings Glory to the Caliph. The music is barbaric, defiant, and joyous as it should be. Haroun then tells Babekan that the hour announced by the astrologers for Rezia’s marriage has arrived. The impatient bridegroom prays that the nuptials may be solemnized without delay, and, at the Caliph’s command, Rezia enters, preceded by a band of dancing girls and followed by a train of female slaves. Fourteen bars of music, Allegretto grazioso, given to the flutes, clarinets, horns, bassoons, triangles, and tambourines appropriately introduce the train with a little dance. Rezia, in an aside to Fatima, remarks, ” He is not here ! ” and desperately handles her dagger. Fatima tries to cheer her. As Haroun tells her to approach, the clash of swords is heard without, to his great indignation. Sir Huon and Sherasmin enter with naked swords, the knight crying, ” Where is my love, my bride ? ” She rushes into his arms, and he claims her for his own with kisses. The Caliph roars to his slaves to hew the dog to pieces, but Babekan claims that task as his own. To the infuriated chorus of Lay the sons of Eblis low the duel is fought and Babekan is slain. The Caliph in fury calls to his guard to tear out Huon’s heart, but at Sherasmin’s suggestion he winds his horn, and is answered by thunder and lightning. The court is terror-stricken ; clouds fill the stage and Oberon appears. A passage of the brass, Allegro furioso, followed by soft notes of the flutes and clarinets, leads to his words of approbation. Huon has done well, Oberon is content, the maid is his. The Elf King waves his wand, the clouds disappear and show the port of Ascalon with a ship at anchor. Still accompanied by the flutes and clarinets, he tells them to go aboard ; it is bound for Greece. He still befriends them, ” Farewell ! Be true and triumph.” (Sometimes a loving duet is introduced here for Huon and Rezia with the music, ” Hin nimn die Seele mein,” from Euryanthe.) Sherasmin is left alone with Fatima, and asks her if she will follow him, and nobody else afterwards. She thinks she can promise. Her aria, A lonely Arab maid, is tenderly illustrative of her character, lovable and deep-souled. In the first part the ‘cello plays a very prominent rôle. The vocal part flows most melodiously with close intervals. They kiss and seal the bargain. Sir Huon returns with Rezia and announces that the captain and ship are waiting. This leads to the fine Over the dark blue waters, which is rather a four-part song than a fully developed operatic quartette. Here we have one of the melodies heard in the overture.
The next scene shows a rocky shore with Puck, at Oberon’s command, calling upon all the elemental spirits to raise a great tempest to trouble the lovers, whose trials are not yet ended. From cavern dark, from the waters deep, from the distant skies, and from underground, they are summoned by virtue of the magic ring of the Fairy King. It is a magnificent passage of incantation on the strings, oboes, clarinets, and, finally, a tremolo on the bassoons. To aerial passages on the flutes and strings, the spirits respond, and in a vigorous chorus ask what must be done. Shall they cleave the moon’s sphere, or darken the sun, or empty the ocean ? They are quite complaisant. The music follows the moods of the various suggestions. To a soft accompaniment of the strings, Puck explains that it is only to wreck a bark upon the coast, an evil deed forbidden to a fairy. Is that all ? (trombones). ” Ho, ho ! ” and demoniacal laughter is supported by oboes and bassoons. That ‘s easy enough, and accordingly orders are given to the winds and waves, which immediately begin to howl and roar and swell on the clarinets and horns ” Hark ! they cry, ‘t is done ; farewell ! ”
It would be impossible to write more melodious or natural music than this. She revives and tries to prevent his self-reproach for her condition. He cries, ” O Oberon ! is this thy friendship ? Cruel spirit ! ” Then they both lament the loss of their faithful attendants. But the storm is abating and Huon will ascend the cliffs to look for assistance, promising not to stay long. If only they had the magic horn ! Left alone, Rezia sings her magnificent recitative and aria, Largo assai, Ocean ! thou mighty monster, which demands such tremendous powers in the singer. Throat and lungs are called upon to the utmost by the amount of what has to be sung, as well as by the way in which it must be given ; there is scarcely a moment’s pause in the long movement of voice and passion. In richly instrumented recitative with wave movement of the strings, after dwelling upon the cruelty of the sea, Rezia describes her past terrors, and in the aria sets forth the complex emotions she has just experienced. But, as she sings, air, sea, and sky clear up, the last of the tempest departs, and finally the sun bursts forth. This change in the elements surrounding the singer is admirably rendered in the music. But Rezia cannot believe in any change for the better. If the sun is shining upon her, it must be for the last time, alas ! in this desolate place. Her gaze is fixed upon the wild, lonely waters, and lo, suddenly, she seems to detect something on the far horizon ! Yes, it is a ship, a ship coming to the rescue. Now her joy and delight break all bounds. The climax of the aria is come. She waves a signal to those on the ship as they approach ; she gathers from their replying signals that she is seen, but where is Huon ? She hurries to the cliffs to seek him ; but he is not to be found he hears her not. A boat comes to the shore ; she glorifies Oberon, who must have sent it ! In high delight she rushes to meet the new-comers, and finds herself among pirates. All this movement and incident has its effect on Rezia’s soul in all its play. Weber has embodied and realized it in his music with such variety, truth, and almost visible incorporation of the facts as to compel our breathless admiration. The last motiv of this opera, brilliant and noble as it is, is also that with which Rezia concludes this great aria with joyous passion. As the elemental storm has now passed away, so also the sun of happiness will shine brightly upon past trials and tribulations.
Abdallah and his pirate crew land and seize her. At her cries, Huon rushes in and is struck down by the villains, who then carry Rezia off. Now Oberon’s horn is heard heralding his appearance. He deplores the cruel fate that makes him inflict such sufferings on this poor mortal. But years of honour and love shall repay him. A sweet instrumental passage by the second clarinet and second flute, in which the latter reverses the form of arpeggio played by the former, preludes the fairy scene. Oberon summons Puck. The sun is about to set; till it has risen seven times, Huon must be shielded from harm. Then the pirate will have anchored in Tunis bay, and Huon must be carried through the air and laid before old Ibrahim the gardener’s door. Oberon sheds heavy sleep upon his eyes meanwhile. Puck obeys. He waves his wand and a pavilion of flowers rises and encloses Sir Huon, while the sun sinks below the waves and the stars come out. Puck feels the mystery of the moonrise, and calls attention to the song of the mermaids that now sing to the horn and muted violins. O ‘t is pleasant to float on the sea, when the wearied waves in a deep sleep be. They describe their delight in the cool eventide as they wring their locks and the scent comes floating on the breeze. The waves lazily rock in the music that accompanies them, and the clarinets, flutes, and oboes are heard occasionally as the waters swirl and murmur among the rocks. Puck is in love with the moonlit strand, and asks Oberon if he and the fairies who have completed their task may dance upon the shore. Better still, Oberon will stay and watch the revels ! They both summon the elfin court to show the mermaids that they can be as jocund as the nymphs of the sea. Hasten ! Come drifting down like blossoms on the summer air ! Come, dance on the sands to the mermaid’s song ! The strings and sustained clarinets and bassoons welcome the throng. The moon shines out, mermaids and nymphs multiply in the waves, and fairies, elves, and elemental spirits flock to the revels. Then follow entwinings and groupings and joyous woven paces to a delicious five-part chorus pianissimo. Who would sleep in the coral cave, or the lily’s bell, when the moonlight threads the forest and the blue vault is splashed with golden spray ? Not the elves and undines ! So they all sport in the moonlight and dew, as Weber must have surprised them, and have stolen their music, getting Oberon to breathe into his wood-wind and borrowing gossamers for his strings. Finally, Oberon gets into his car, drawn by swans, and departs ; whereupon they all disperse.
AcT III. The court-yard of the house of Ibrahim, the gardener, in Tunis. Fatima enters dressed as a slave, and bewails her lot. She also grieves for her mistress, though a good dream last night makes her yet hope for her safety. She sings her beautiful arietta, Oh Araby, dear Araby ! It is characteristic of the singer, in whom joy and melancholy, neither of too deep a cast, dwell always side by side. The instrumentation is masterly as ever, beginning with violins, and then reinforced by two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, viola, and bass. Sherasmin then joins her. He is dressed as a gardener and carries a spade and a basket of flowers. They are grateful to their owner for having bought them both, and look forward to brighter days. Sherasmin recalls his happy youth, and begins the duet, On the banks of sweet Garonne. His account of his gaieties is accompanied entirely by the strings except at the words, ” Fighting every neighbour’s son,” when the bassoon emphasizes his wickedness. Fatima answers, with wood- wind and strings pizzicato, that her youth was spent wandering with the flocks ” by the waves of Bundemir.” Now they are slaves, but what matters, they ask, so long as they are slaves together ! Here the tempo changes from 2/4 to 6/8, and gaiety and sunshine flood the rest of this charming duet. They go to their tasks ; and ascending and descending scales with fairy-like trills bring in Puck with Sir Huon. Seven times the morn has blushed, and now the bark is in port with Sir Huon’s bride. Puck breaks the spell and flies back to fairy land. Sir Huon is gazing around him in amazement, when Sherasmin returns and shares his perplexity. He and Fatima were picked up by a corsair and sold in Tunis, and he learns of the carrying off of his lady, but Sir Huon’s presence cannot be explained. Fatima now enters and welcomes Sir Huon. She supposes that he has arrived with Rezia, who that morning, as she hears, has been presented, a lovely captive found on a desert island, to the Emir of Tunis. They are all satisfied it can only be she. They will ask their master to take Sir Huon into his service, only they must find him some humbler garb first. This leads to the terzettino, And must I then dissemble? Sustained notes on the horns bid the tyrant beware, and then the clarinets and flutes, as usual, accompany Fatima’s gentle appeal to Oberon to restore his love to the knight. Then to more martial instruments, they pray that the Fairy King will strike for them and bless the good sword. The passage is short, but very effective.
Rezia is in the harem. Her cavatina, Mourn thou, poor heart, for the joys that are dead, is instrumented with clarinets, bassoons, and strings. It is admirably simple, affecting, and natural. After her exit, a female slave raises the hanging over one of the smaller doors of the apartment and looks about her cautiously, then she beckons and enters, followed by Sir Huon muffled in a Moorish mantle. He asks his guide where is his love. She makes a sign for him to remain where he is, and he shall see her. Then she retires through the hangings of the centre arch. Sir Huon is inclined to be suspicious, but exults at the prospect of clasping his beloved again. His rondo, I revel in hope and joy again, accompanied by the strings and wood, fully expresses his feelings. It is ornate and longer than is usual in this opera. But Rezia does not appear, and the suspense is becoming unendurable, when the hangings of the centre arch open suddenly and disclose Roshana, the Emir’s wife, reclining in a brilliantly lighted recess and covered with a rich veil. Huon cries, ” Ah ! she is there ! my love, my life ! ” and rushes to embraces her as she rises and unveils. He halts, horrified. She tries to reassure him, and confesses her passion for the Christian. Vengeance and love are consuming her; let his arm gratify the former and the latter shall reward him beyond imaginable desire. He has only to stab Almanzor when heavy with the forbidden wine. Huon refuses. If she is a wronged wife, he will meet her lord blade to blade, but he is no assassin ! She will not thus be foiled : she will try other arts ! So she claps her hands, and a troop of dancing girls and female slaves enter and surround the Christian knight with gar-lands, while one proffers a goblet of wine. A seductive ballet and chorus follows, For thee bath beauty decked her bower. This opens Allegretto with horns, bassoons, triangle, and strings. There are beautiful dance rhythms all through this ballet, in which the dancers exert all their wiles and display all their charms, and Huon’s exasperation is expressed in strains of noble contrast. The trombone, in a kind of obbligato, supports his righteous indignation. The flowers breathe poison and the wine looks like blood ! He breaks away from the garlands, but is met by Roshana, who clings to him and hinders his flight. Can he flee while white arms encircle him ? asks the chorus, with soft notes on the wood-wind. To a full orchestral accompaniment più vivace, he replies that eyes burning with unholy brilliancy have no charms for him, and he would prefer the worm to have its fill before wanton hands should stray over him. He breaks away from Roshana and tries to gain the door, but the girls again intercept and surround him, and renew their allurements. He is about to force his way out in desperation, when Almanzor enters with a guard of armed slaves. Roshana and her women fly in terror, as her lord raves on finding a man in the harem. He shall be burnt this very hour ! As they seize Sir Huon, Rezia enters and begs for his life, confessing he is her husband. Very well, if she will smile upon Almanzor’s love, Sir Huon shall go free, loaded with riches, and furnished with a safe conduct to his native land. Rezia scouts the offer : sooner would she share her husband’s fate. Very well, she shall : ” To the stake with them ! ” Sir Huon grieves over her, but she is happy that they will die together. As the slaves are about to take them away, the magic horn sounds. Almanzor becomes motionless, the slaves release their captives and begin to dance like a lot of madmen. The solo on the horn commences the finale, Hark ! what notes are swelling. When the chorus ceases, some twenty bars are played by the piccolo and triangle, and then Sherasmin and Fatima enter. They have heard the elfin horn and join in a quartette (accompanied by the strings only), Rejoice, ‘t is the horn of power. The whole city has been set dancing.
To an Allegro furioso, the stage now fills with clouds. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls, and Almanzor and his terrified slaves make their escape. As the music subsides into a sweeter passage, Oberon appears with Titania by his side. Reconciliation has come by the faithful, mortal pair whose woes are now ended, as Oberon announces. His splendid recitative, richly instrumented, thanks their aid by which again he clasps his queen.
He will now quickly carry them to France; and he leaves them with the grateful fairy’s last farewell. He and Titania disappear in enveloping clouds, which presently disperse and reveal the palace of Charlemagne. To drums on the stage and a brilliant processional march maestoso, the full court and guard, and, lastly, the Emperor himself, enter.
He ascends the throne. (Flourish.) Sir Huon, Rezia, Sherasmin, and Fatima, who left the stage at the change of scene, re-enter. Sir Huon, armed as in the first scene, leads Rezia to the foot of the throne and kneels, announcing that he has fulfilled the conditions of his sentence. Charlemagne receives him graciously, and the assembly sing a chorus of welcome and praise to ” Rezia the lovely and Huon the bold.”