Carl Maria von Weber


J306 • “König der Elfen”

About this work

Oberon is Weber's final opera and one of his most impressive works. He composed the work between 1825 and 1826 on commission for Covent Garden, and it premiered there in April 1826.

Weber found a rich and evocative story for the stage. Oberon has settings in medieval France, at the legendary Arabian court of Haroun al-Raschid and in the fairy world. Oberon refuses to return to Titania until he has proof that at least one pair of lovers can remain faithful. The fairy Puck procures a magic horn, which he gives to one of Charlemagne's knights, Huon, so that Huon can rescue his lady Reiza from the Arabian court and thus become living testimony to faithfulness. The combination of elements alone allowed Weber much opportunity to compose music suggestive of locale and emotion. While the libretto is often regarded as extremely weak, the music surpasses those constraints.

Weber learned English to work more closely with his librettist, James Robinson Planché. Performances in German, as usually occur, reflect a translation from the original form of the opera. The first translation was by Weber's sometime collaborator Theodore Hell. Other German versions were made to bring it effectively to the stage and to make the music more continuous than in the original, which was written to suit English tastes for spectacle and for dialogue rather than recitative. Gustav Mahler not only adjusted several numbers, but also rewrote some of the opera to arrive at a consistent performing score.

With Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, Weber had composed two successful operas that set the standard for the German stage. Oberon shows not only Weber's mature style, but also reflects an intensified -- almost bel canto -- lyricism. He avoided the menacing naturalism of Der Freischütz or the more formal elegance of Euryanthe. Instead, he arrived at a light and deft approach to the work, which anticipates the "elfin" sounds Mendelssohn created in his music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In doing so, Weber used exposed wind passages and made the string textures more transparent. The unifying theme of the magic horn brought a different color to the work and contributed a musical cue to the dramaturgy. Even though Oberon involves spoken dialogue, the musical numbers are nonetheless operatic and many of them are sustained scenes. The famous soprano aria for Reiza, "Ocean! Thou mighty monster," is comparable to the kind of music Bellini would take up in Norma and other works in the 1830s. At the same time, the orchestra plays an important role in the work and functions as more than mere accompaniment. The aria cited above is effective because of the interaction that occurs between the solo voice and the orchestra. Without burying the voice under a symphonic texture, Weber creates a blend between the media. This kind of intense musical interplay is typical of Weber's work late in his career, and his influence on succeeding generations is notable for it.