Oberon, or The Elf King’s Oath is a 3-act romantic opera in English with spoken dialogue and music by Carl Maria von Weber. The libretto by James Robinson Planché was based on a German poem, Oberon, by Christoph Martin Wieland, which itself was based on the epic romance Huon de Bordeaux, a French medieval tale.
Against his doctor’s advice, Weber undertook the project commissioned by the actor-impresario Charles Kemble for financial reasons. Having been offered the choice of Faust or Oberon as subject matter, he travelled to London to complete the music, learning English to be better able to follow the libretto, before the premiere of the opera. However, the pressure of rehearsals, social engagements and composing extra numbers destroyed his health, and Weber died in London on 5 June 1826.
First performed at Covent Garden, London, on 12 April 1826, with Miss Paton as Reiza, Mme. Vestris as Fatima, Braham as Huon, Bland as Oberon and the composer conducting, it was a triumph with many encores, and the production was frequently revived. The libretto was later translated into German by Theodor Hell, and it is in this German translation that the opera is most frequently performed. While it is logical to assume that the German translation would have had the composer’s approval – and that it would have been in that language that revisions would have been made – he heard it only in English, and did not work on a translation before his death.
The opera was soon mounted elsewhere: Leipzig in 1826, Dublin, Edinburgh and Vienna in 1827, Prague in 1828 and Budapest in 1829, with many other performances in western Europe from the 1830s to the 1860s.
Weber was dissatisfied by the structure of the opera as it was produced in London, and intended to revise the work on his return to Germany, but died in London before starting work on the revision. Since then, other composers and librettists have revised the work, notably Franz Wüllner, Gustav Mahler (who, preparing a new performing version, rearranged some of the numbers and composed some linking music based on material from the existing score) and novelist-composer Anthony Burgess, who wrote a new libretto for Oberon and arranged the overture for guitar quartet. Franz Liszt made an arrangement of the overture in 1846 for solo piano (S.574).
The first performance of Oberon in America took place in New York at the Park Theatre on 20 September 1826. It was first seen in Paris in 1830 at the Théâtre Italien (in German). A lavish production was mounted in French at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 27 February 1857, conducted by Adolphe Deloffre, and was praised by Berlioz.
In the 20th century, the Metropolitan Opera premiere was on 28 December 1918 (accumulating 13 performances up to 1921) with Rosa Ponselle as Reiza, conducted Artur Bodanzky, who also composed recitatives in place of original spoken dialogue. The opera was staged at the Salzburg Festival in 1932 and 1934 under Walter, at the 1950 Holland Festival with Monteux conducting, the Florence Festival in 1952 under Stiedry and at the Paris Opera in 1953 with Cluytens. Although the opera has been staged intermittently in the 20th century, it has been often been performed successfully in concert.
Weber – Oberon (or The Elf King’s Oath), J. 306 – Overture