Fascinating polyglot Telemann

19 Mar

I’ve been to quite a lot recently and I haven’t had the time I’d have liked to blog about it all.  I hope I’ll get round at least to my thoughts on Written on Skin and Imeneo.  However, I’ve just been to the performance on 18th March of Telemann’s Orpheus at St George’s Hanover Square by the Classical Opera Company and wanted let my enthusiasm for it out immediately.

I’ve not seen an opera by Telemann before.  In fact, I know remarkably little of his music.  According to the programme he claimed to have written 35 operas for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg.  Only seven have survived and this one, written in 1726, relatively early on in his time in Hamburg, was only rediscovered in the 1970s.  And it’s not entirely complete.

It takes a French libretto in which the wicked queen Orasia is in love with Orpheus and organises the snakes to get rid of Euridice.  Once Euridice dies the story goes on much as usual until Orpheus returns.  He then rejects Orasia who orders him to be torn to pieces by a group of passing Bacchantes.  There’s a minor sub-plot for Eurimedes, Orpheus’s friend and Cephisa, one of Euridice’s nymphs – amounting to a couple of arias in the first Act.  Given that Orasia and Pluto each have a confidante, it’s quite a busy evening for those of us used to Gluck, or even Montiverdi or Birtwistle.  As someone who tends to find the Gluck, at least, a bit of a bore, I welcomed the additional interest.

The entirely eccentric thing about this opera is that it is in polyglot.  The recitatives and the majority of the arias are in German, but every now and then Telemann will put in an aria in Italian or French, or a chorus in French.  Thus, in the first scene, Orasia and her confidante Ismene have been have been having a conversation in German and Orasia has had a couple of German arias and then suddenly launches into a massive vengeance aria in Italian.  Generally, it seems to me that Italian numbers are the ones for heightened emotion and more exaggerated sentiments, while the French ones tended to be for the higher, more refined emotions, but this seemed to be by no means the rule and I’ve no doubt that a director could have lots of fun with this.  I didn’t find it damaged my enjoyment of the piece (though it might have been more obvious if what the cast were singing had been clearer) and I’d love to know if this were a regular occurrence.  The nearest I’ve got to this was at a recent ENO Elisir where the understudy Nemorino only knew the role in Italian and Andrew Shore changed language to suit.  The choice seemed far more random here.

What I enjoyed most was the sheer variety and quality of the music.  Judging by this, Telemann had significant talent as an opera composer.  The recitatives move swiftly, the arias express the emotions of the text and manage a splendid variety of tone.  I remember particularly Orpheus’s aria “Ach Tod, du süsser Tod” in the first Act with a delicate grieving pizzicato accompaniment, the beautiful sinfonia with flute obbligato as he charms Pluto, but there were many others that were incredibly grateful to listen to and served a really strong dramatic purpose.

It helped that Ian Page conducted a very strong performance indeed.  I’m going to mention the Classical Opera Company’s orchestra first because it played throughout with huge sensitivity and style.  It’s a busy score and this band’s clear, crisp, alert and really sensitive playing gave huge pleasure.

He had a young and very gifted cast of singers.  For this concert performance they had learned their parts and so could move and react without holding scores and it felt as though “semi-staged” would be a better description.  It wasn’t a perfect cast and there were a number of occasions when I wished for singers just a little bit more experienced and a little more alert to the words, but they were committed, intelligent and musical and this went a very long way indeed.

The main female role is Orasia and Eleanour Dennis had a very strong stab at it.  It reminds me of the sort of writing that Handel gave to Armida in Rinaldo and requiring that sort of soprano.  Dennis managed the differing emotions and brought some really fire to the coloratura of the angry, vengeance numbers, but I couldn’t help wishing far a little more freedom and experience to make a full effect.  Similarly, I really admired Jonathan McGovern’s thoughtful, simple, open singing as Orpheus and also wondered what Fischer-Dieskau would have made of it.  This may seem ungrateful but I felt that Telemann was probably writing for major and experienced singers at an important opera house.

The lesser roles are, I suspect easier, but I hugely enjoyed Alex Ashworth’s booming, accurate and very forceful Pluto, Alexander Sprague’s lilting, idiomatic, gentle Eurimedes and Rhian Lois’s appealing Euridice and Rupert Enticknap’s confident Ascalax.  The small forces sounded very good in St George’s.

Hand on heart, I can’t really imagine this hugely attractive oddity ever getting into the repertory or even being takne on by one of the major companies but I left hoping (a) that there’d be a recording of this excellent performance and (b) that this company and others, maybe students, maybe Opera North, will tackle some more of Telemann’s work.  This evening suggested that he’d far too good to be left forgotten.  And I’ll be eternally grateful to the performers this evening for demonstrating this to me.

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