Sunday 16 December 2018

Leading lady who won heart of Germany's father of opera

Carl Maria von Weber.
Carl Maria von Weber.

George Hamilton

First, a confession. I have a particular soft spot for those little boxes in the newspaper that note what happened in history on this day.

Rummaging around for significant events on November 4, I came up with an absolute plethora of musical connections.

Sadly, this date is the anniversary of the passing of two of the great Romantic composers.

Felix Mendelssohn, who gave us the Scottish and Italian symphonies, and Fingal's Cave, not to mention the most beautiful piano music, died exactly 170 years ago, in 1847.

Gabriel Fauré, whose Pavane, Sicilienne, Dolly Suite, and Requiem are all landmarks in their own right, succumbed to pneumonia on November 4, 1924, at the age of 79.

But there was a happier circumstance in Prague 200 years ago today - the marriage of Caroline Brandt, an actor and singer, and the composer Carl Maria von Weber.

Caroline came from the Rhineland, from Beethoven's home town of Bonn, where her parents were prominent in the arts.

Her mother acted, her father was a noted tenor, who also played the violin in the court orchestra.

She herself was treading the boards at the age of only eight and would most likely have been on the fast track to stardom had financial necessity not intervened. Her father's band was wound up, and that meant the end of her formal education.

She had to make her own way, and that she did, travelling to wherever the work was, building a formidable reputation as she went. That earned her a contract in Frankfurt.

In September 1810, Weber came to town to present his new opera, Silvana. At the age of only 18, Caroline was cast in the title role.

Ironically, it wasn't a singing part, for Silvana was a girl from the woods who couldn't speak.

Weber, six years Caroline's senior, was already well established. His musical connections stretched far and wide.

His uncle, who was in the music business in Vienna, had three daughters who were singers.

Mozart courted Aloysia, one of these cousins, then married another, Constanze Weber.

Helped by the success of a subsequent one-acter, Abu Hassan, his version of one of the tales of the Arabian Nights, which premièred in Munich the year after Silvana in Frankfurt, Weber got the job as Director of the Opera in Prague.

He hadn't forgotten the young actor who'd starred in the Frankfurt première, and in 1813, he offered Caroline a contract.

Her debut in Prague came on New Year's Day in 1814, in the title role of Cinderella in a version that featured spoken dialogue as well - the comic opera Cendrillon by a composer not much heard of any more, the Maltese-born Nicolas Isouard.

Reported as an extraordinary success, it would be the first of 34 productions in which she would feature, many of them in the principal role, under Weber's direction.

The pair had become romantically involved in a relationship that was at times tempestuous, but they were very much an item by the time he left for a new position in Dresden in the autumn of 1816.

Caroline stayed on in Prague to see out her commitments there, but there would be no more opera, just a series of stage appearances. Weber came back to marry her - 200 years ago today. Caroline gave up her career and moved back to Dresden with him.

His greatest success, Der Freischütz (The Marksman), which helped him cement his reputation as the father of German Opera was composed in the first years of his marriage and premièred in Berlin in 1821.

Along with his Clarinet Concertos, that opera keeps alive the name of Carl Maria von Weber today.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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