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'Germanicus' Unearthed

This article was first published at The Classical Review on April 18, 2012.

available at Amazon
Telemann, Germanicus, E. Scholl, M. Rexroth, Sächsisches Barockorchester Leipzig, G. Schwarz

(released on January 31, 2012)
cpo 777 602-2 | 164'12"

available at Amazon
M. Maul, Barockoper in Leipzig (1693-1720)
(Rombach, 2009)
The Leipzig Opernhaus was only the second opera house built in Germany, opening its doors in 1692. Staging operas during the city’s thrice-yearly trade fairs, its history, despite the chronic absence of documentation, has been studied in depth by musicologist Michael Maul, a native Leipziger based at the city’s Bach-Archiv.

One of the fruits of Maul’s work has been his reconstruction of Germanicus, one of the “several and 20” operas Telemann claimed he composed in his youth at Leipzig. Maul connected the libretto -- written, somewhat unusually, by a woman, Christine Dorothea Lachs, a local Protestant minister’s wife, who happened to be the daughter of the founder of the Leipzig Opera -- with a set of arias in the Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library in Frankfurt. Lachs was reportedly much admired for her stage poetry, having authored at least three opera libretti for Telemann and translated several others from Italian.

The plot -- drawn from ancient Roman history and adapted from the Annales of Tacitus -- is particularly contorted. It concerns a campaign in Germania by the Roman general Nero Claudius Germanicus in the First Century A.D. during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Although set against a military background, the vicissitudes of the story all have to do with love and betrayal: the jealousy of Germanicus provoked by increasingly ridiculous misconceptions of the infidelity of his faithful wife, Agrippina.

In the other plot strand, Claudia, the daughter of the conquered Cheruscan prince Segestes, loves the Cheruscan outlaw Arminius but is offered in marriage to the Roman prince Lucius. At the same time, in the occupied city of Cologne, a Roman captain named Florus is plotting to overthrow Germanicus and Tiberius. Magical and divine forces intercede to set things right, notably when the son of Germanicus and Agrippina, the treble role of Caligula, prays to the goddess Juno, whose oracle speaks in defense of Agrippina’s virtue.

Maul’s reconstruction was performed by the Sächsisches Barockorchester Leipzig, under the baton of Gotthold Schwarz, at the Bachfest Leipzig in 2007. This new three-disc set from Cpo was recorded in the Altes Theater am Jerichower Platz in Magdeburg, where the opera was revived by the same forces in 2010. Comprised of young musicians from larger standard orchestras playing on historical instruments, the orchestra, has a high-quality and unified sound. (Unfortunately, the instruments and the musicians are not listed anywhere in the booklet.) Schwarz creates a sound that is perhaps not daring or distinctive but is always distinguished by its clarity and precision.

Because none of Telemann’s music for the opera’s recitatives has survived, Maul created a narrator’s part (spoken here by Dieter Bellmann) who relates the action between arias. That neither the recitatives nor Maul’s narration are translated into English in the booklet renders them less than useful to non-German speakers. On the other hand, reading only a libretto’s arias makes it clear how the opera seria worked. Typical of the genre, almost all of the numbers are solo arias, with three excellent duets (‘Mein süßer Trost’ and ‘Wie glücklich ist die Brust’ for Lucius and Claudia, and ‘Zur flucht, mein Schatz’ for Arminus and Claudia) that are among the work’s best pieces.

The performing version of the opera is further complicated by the fact that the arias catalogued by Maul represent a later version of the opera, with some of the German arias replaced by Italian texts. These are performed with the text with which they are found in the source, but some of the keys, in an attempt to restore the work to something like its original form, have been altered. The resulting confusion dates back to contested authorship, attributed not to Telemann but to one Gottfried Grünewald, who had sung the title role at the opera’s premiere in Leipzig and then brought it to Hamburg.

Thirteen arias and other pieces from the score are also lost, a situation rectified by Maul with substitutions from other works produced in Leipzig, by Telemann, Johann David Heinichen (an agitated rage aria, ‘Furien! Furien!,’ taken from a 1709 Leipzig opera, Das lybische Talestris), Melchior Hoffmann (“Großer Feldherr,” one of the most striking arias, with heraldic horns, borrowed from an Annunciation cantata), and Johann Gottfried Vogler (possibly the composer of “So erhält getreue Liebre,” the ensemble number slotted in to form a finale to the opera, although it may be by Telemann). The final bit of guesswork had to do with the missing overture: Maul chose one of Telemann’s other overtures (TWV 55:Es 4), composed around the same time as Germanicus, between 1704 and 1710.

The music and the performances are all beautiful, if lacking any particular revelations. Agrippina’s moving Act I aria ‘Piante voi’ features the ensemble’s warm strings in dotted-rhythm chords, but the soprano of Elisabeth Scholl in this leading role is just a bit unreliable at maintaining pitch (such as in the gorgeous aria ‘Rimembranza crudel’ and ‘Son troppo tenaci’), but with better work in other pieces (the pastoral pairing of ‘Süße Hoffnung’ and ‘Komm, o Schlaf’ in Act II, for example). Tobias Berndt has a pleasing ring on the bass role of Arminius but for the most part lacks the vocal agility to handle the demanding runs of ‘A lescosse fi fortuna.’

Telemann makes colorful use of the orchestra in some of the arias: fairly standard trumpets and drums in some martial arias, and a striking use of bassoons in Claudia’s ‘Amor, hilf mir überwinden.’ Claudia’s pithy, vivacious ‘Nò lacci crudeli’ is characterized by percolating syncopations, but soprano Olivia Stahn, who has a bright and substantial sound overall (lovely in ‘Ti perdei, mio bel sole’), tends to sag, just slightly, in intonation in faster passages. There are pleasing, slightly wan sounds from a boy soprano, Friedrich Praetorius, as Caligula, and less admirable ones from countertenor Matthias Rexroth as Florus and Lucius, like the woofy ‘Arditi pensieri.’ Albrecht Sack has a heroic but rather plain tone in the couple arias for Segestes, and baritone Henryk Böhm is a somewhat vanilla Germanicus.

Sadly, the considerable debt accumulated by the Leipzig Opera led to it being shuttered in 1720, just three years before the arrival of Johann Sebastian Bach as Thomaskantor in 1723. If the house had still been mounting new German operas, what might Bach have been tempted to write for it?

Tanya Kevorkian, Review of Michael Maul's dissertation, Notes (2010)

Wes Blomster, Leipzig Bachfest explores early opera (Opera Today, June 18, 2007)

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