Franz Schubert's last complete opera, the three-act "heroisches-romantisches" opera Fierabras, D. 796, has suffered a life of neglect, as has each of Schubert's other theater-music efforts save only the incidental music to Rosamunde (long a darling of the concert hall). Composed during the summer and fall of 1823, Fierabras was not staged until just three years before the turn of the next century, when it was given at Karlsruhe -- and then only after Felix Mottl revised (i.e. shortened) it. The first full performances didn't come until the 1980s; naturally the opera has never found a home in the repertory.
Whether Fierabras deserves to be so ignored is a matter upon which even those who have dedicated whole lives to Schubert remain undecided. It has long been customary to blame Schubert's choice of libretti for the commercial failure of his operas, and in the case of Fierabras there is more than a little truth to the notion -- Josef Kupelweiser's verses, which draw on work by no fewer than three other men (Büsching, von der Hagen, and de la Motte Fouque), barely rise above rank amateurism. Schubert nevertheless responded with music that is at times superbly inspired. The operatic whole, however, remains sadly ineffective. In all fairness, Schubert never had the chance to see any of his full-scale operas staged, and so was deprived of learning first-hand how to write for the theater -- it was often through the actualization of failure early on in their careers that some of history's greatest opera composers mastered their craft.
Fierabras was commissioned by the Kärntnertheater (of which Josef Kupelweiser was general manager; he also happened to be the brother of one of Schubert's dear friends) for the 1822-23 season. Its three acts trace the course of a dual love-story woven in and around stock elements of Carolingian intrigue, such as hostage knights and the siege of a tower.
There is, somewhat unusually, an abundance of spoken dialogue throughout the opera, though Schubert also supplied the work with a substantial amount of recitative. Musical highlights of Fierabras include the women's "Spinning Chorus" that follows immediately after the overture; the 20-some minute finale to Act I, which begins as a serenade from Eginhard to Emma and then explodes into a dramatic quartet during which our title character is wrongly thrown in jail; and the happiest inspiration in the entire opera, the lovely duet for Florinda and Maragond (both sopranos), "Weit über Glanz und Erdenschimmer," near the beginning of Act II.