Friday, June 10, 2022

German opera (2)

One of the main contributors to operas in Hamburg was Georg Philipp Telemann. A substantial number of his operas are lost or have been preserved only fragmentarily. One of his extant operas is Miriways [1]. Most operas of the baroque period are based on material from ancient history or mythology, and in the latter the gods also have a say. Miriways, which premiered in Hamburg on 26 May 1728, and was performed again two years later, is an exception. The events - partly historical, partly fictitious - take place in Persia in 1722. In 1723 a biography of Mir Wais, an Afghan prince, was published and this edition inspired Johann Samuel Müller to write a libretto on this character. He took the liberty of crediting Mir Wais's son's conquest of the Persian throne to his father's account. In fact, Müller's libretto does not differ fundamentally from the usual ones at the time, because here, too, everything revolves around the conflict between love and power, a hidden identity, and loyalty and deceit. Telemann's setting of this libretto is then rather atypical, since the mixture of different languages, which was a feature of Hamburg operas, is missing here: both recitatives and arias are sung in German. This results in a stronger cohesion and a more natural transition from recitative to aria than in multilingual operas. The orchestra is colourful: the usual strings are joined by transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns. The latter are often used to give the work a certain degree of exoticism. In his programme notes, Rashid-S. Pegah points out that Telemann took the exotic elements primarily from the folk music he was familiar with. The kind of sounds which we encounter in later 'oriental' operas is absent here. This opera contains many beautiful arias, and several of them include an obbligato part for one or more instruments. The performance, directed by Bernard Labadie, is the recording of a concert performance on 24 November 2017 in the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg. Either those present behaved in an exemplary manner or the recording engineers have done a brilliant job, as their is hardly any noise. There is applause only at the end of each act, otherwise only the aria of the drunken scandor in the third act is rewarded with applause. From a dramatic point of view, this performance is generally convincing. André Morsch, in the role of Miriways, is a bit restrained at the beginning and only really gets going in the second act. Marie-Claude Chappuis as his wife Samischa remains a bit bland. In the most important supporting roles, Robin Johannsen, Lydia Teuscher and Michael Nagy are fully convincing. Stylistically, this performance is less satisfying; in this respect, Lydia Teuscher and Michael Nagy come off best. The orchestra is, as one might expect, very good. Acoustically, this recording is not ideal; now and then I found the sound a bit flat. The production also leaves a lot to be desired. Although the programme notes puts the work in its historical and stylistic context, there is no summary of the plot. There are also some modernizations in the libretto: one reads, for example, "für dich" and hears "vor dir". Here and there parts of the recitatives have been omitted, but this is neither mentioned in the liner-notes nor marked in the libretto. As a result one could easily get one's wires crossed. As far as I know, this recording is the second of this opera. Ten years ago CPO released a recording conducted by Michi Gaigg. I haven't compared them, but reading my impressions from back then, I have to conclude that Gaigg's recording is preferable, especially as it is stylistically more consistent and convincing.

In 2018, CPO released a recording of excerpts from the opera Die getreue Alceste by Georg Caspar Schürmann, who worked at the Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel court. It was a logical step to then turn to Carl Heinrich Graun. We know him almost exclusively as a member of the orchestra of Frederick the Great, where he was primarily responsible for composing operas. The stage works he composed there are all settings of Italian librettos. Today they are rarely performed; with any luck, some arias are included in anthologies. His compositions before this period are completely ignored, including some German-language operas, such as Polydorus [2]. In 1724 Graun was employed as a tenor at the court in Wolfenbüttel. In addition to his duties as a singer, he also composed, among other things, serenatas, cantatas as well as passion and funeral music. The court had its own theatre, which was also open to the public, which explains why German texts were used at least for the recitatives. The arias could sometimes have French or Italian texts, but Polydorus, first performed in 1727 and again in 1731, is entirely in German. The story is too complicated to retell here; the booklet contains a summary. When one is listening to this recording, it is not easy to follow the story and from a dramatic point of view it is not entirely convincing. The main reason is that we don't get a complete performance in Ira Hochman's recording. The booklet calls it a "dramaturgically streamlined" recording. This means that entire scenes have been deleted and many recitatives have been abridged. This is perhaps also the reason that the performance seems a bit static; it does not have much momentum, also because the pauses between the sections and also between the recitatives and arias are mostly too long. Musically, however, this work is very valuable: it contains many beautiful and often virtuosic arias. Some highlights include the aria 'Tyrann, du suchtest Liebe' (Andromache; Act 2), with an obbligato cello part, 'Ruhe sanft, du edle Seele' (Polidorus, Act 4), with two horns, and Andromache's arioso in the same act, 'Komm denn, du angenehmer Tod', with an obbligato part for violin. While this recording leaves a lot to be desired from a dramatic point of view, stylistically it is almost completely convincing. Hanna Zumsande, Santa Karnite, Mirko Ludwig and Fabian Kuhnen are all excellent in their contributions. They have no problems with the often high demands of their respective roles, for example with regard to the tessitura. I would only have wished that the two ladies would not always sing the highest notes at full power. Alon Harari sings the title role and he generally does it well, but with a little too much vibrato at times. The orchestra plays very beautifully and the obbligato parts are impressively executed. Ira Hochman presents here another interesting discovery. However, it is regrettable that - for whatever reason - this opera by Graun is not being performed in its entirety. It deserves better.

As everyone knows, Christoph Willbald Gluck tried to reform opera and aimed at a more 'natural' form of music theatre. This resulted in another form of opera; his Orfeo ed Euridice is one of its specimens. In the 1770's a whole new form appeared on the horizon: the melodrama. There is no singing, all the characters are only speaking. There are no arias that bring the action to a standstill. The orchestra reacts directly to the characters' statements, prepares them, illustrates them or comments on them, often with short interjections of a chord or with longer phrases, and the interpreter of a role also speaks into the orchestra's playing. Mozart was enthusiastic about this genre, and characterized it as a long accompanied recitative. He was particularly impressed by the melodramas of Georg Anton Benda, who left two such works: Medea [3] and Ariadne auf Naxos. The former exists in two versions: Marcus Bosch made the first recording of the second, which Benda preferred, with the ensemble Cappella Aquileia and the actress Katharina Thalbach. There are several roles in this melodrama: although Medea plays the leading role, the housekeeper and Medea's children appear in the fourth and fifth scenes, and Jason turns up in the seventh and eighth scenes. All roles are spoken by Katharina Thalbach. Unfortunately, the booklet does not mention whether this corresponds to Benda's intentions. There is another recording in the catalogue, also with only one female voice, but also one with different voices. Opera lovers know the story of Medea. There is little action here, apart from Medea killing her children. We mainly hear how Medea expresses her feelings. Against the advantage of a direct connection between music and text there is the disadvantage that almost only Medea lets her madness run wild here, and her constant deafening screaming is an ordeal. How this role was performed at the time maybe impossible to establish. Frau Thalbach has perfectly settled into the character of Medea, but I wonder whether this is in line with Benda's intentions. To my taste it is just too much. Others may experience it differently. The orchestra plays its role very convincingly. As far as I can tell, it plays modern instruments, but in period style. Lovers of music theater may not want to miss this production, if only because of the second version that is played here.

[1] Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767): Miriways (TWV 21,24)
Anett Fritsch (Zemir), Robin Johannsen (Sophi), Sophie Karthäuser (Bemira), Lydia Teuscher (Nisibis), soprano; Marie-Claude Chappuis (Samischa), mezzo-soprano; Paul McNamara (Gesandter), tenor; Dominik Köninger (Geist, Scandor), André Morsch (Miriways), Michael Nagy (Murzah), baritone; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernard Labadie
Pentatone PTC 5186 842 (© 2020) details

[2] Carl Heinrich Graun (1703/04-1759): Polydorus (Graun WV B,I,3) (exc)
Hanna Zumsande (Ilione), Santa Karnīte (Andromache), soprano; Alon Harari (Polidorus), alto; Mirko Ludwig (Deiphilus, Geist des Deiphilus), tenor; Ralf Grobe (Pyrrhus), Andreas Heynemeyer (Dares), Fabian Kuhnen (Polymnestor), bass; barockwerk hamburg/Ira Hochman
CPO 555 266-2 (© 2020) details

[3] Georg Anton Benda (1722-1795): Medea
Katharina Thalbach, narrator; Cappella Aquileia/Marcus Bosch
Coviello Classics COV 92014 (© 2020) details