Only a small part of Georg Philipp Telemann’s operatic output survives. But what has survived is worthy of rediscovery and is guaranteed to attract audiences of a more discerning kind, not only in the composer’s anniversary year of 2017 (250th anniversary of his death).
For some time now, a part of the operatic repertoire, namely German-language opera of the first half of the 18th century, has been receiving more attention, and Georg Philipp Telemann’s operas are probably typical of this genre. Whilst he was still at school in Magdeburg Telemann became interested in opera, and he set a libretto by a Hamburg poet to music. As a student in Leipzig he directed a Collegium musicum and began at the same time to compose operas. From Sorau, Eisenach and Frankfurt he supplied the Leipzig venture with new pieces. The comic opera Der geduldige Socrates, with which Telemann took on the role of opera composer before taking up the post in Hamburg, was composed whilst he was in Frankfurt. With the reworking for Hamburg of Der neumodische Liebhaber Damon (1724), a satirical piece, he drew on one of his Leipzig operas.
From the large number of stage works written for Leipzig and Hamburg only a few survive. The themes he dealt with included love, friendship, fidelity and steadfastness. But ideas, philosophical concepts and everyday concerns were also discussed. The general discourse and topics discussed in the Hamburg intellectual scene of the day were taken up. The protagonists always have to wrestle with and resolve the most varied conflicts; there is no psychological state of mind for which Telemann did not furnish appropriate music. Sometimes his music reaches far beyond what can be expressed in words, but the music always penetrates and explains each particular situation. The spectrum ranges from great intimacy to dramatic virtuosity. The theatrical gesture is realised in tableaux with chorus and fully-scored orchestra; intimate chamber-like elements in solo and duet scenes are accompanied by sensitive and subtle sounds which always correspond with a finely-differentiated declamatory and harmonic texture.
Telemann’s first Hamburg opera Sieg der Schönheit (1722) is based on a classically-based libretto by the most important Hamburg librettist of the 17th century, Christian Heinrich Postel. What survives of the Hamburg version is the printed libretti and an extract of 21 arias; a score documents the “export” of the work to Braunschweig. The operatic drama is triggered by the victory of the Vandals over Rome. The victorious King Gensericus and the heroes Honoricus and Helmiges accompanying him encounter the defeated Empress Eudoxia with her daughters and the Roman patrician Olybrius. The conflicts result from the claims of the new rulers against the women seemingly brought to them, with each of the people involved expounding a different view of events in order to solve the contradiction between society’s demands and their individual feelings. The plot is accompanied by commentary from the merry servant Turpino and the serious Trasimundus. There are highly emotional, contemplative, virtuoso and cantabile arias; in the duets Telemann also distinguishes through music the different or coinciding views of those involved.
The opera Miriways (1728) is set in an oriental ambience, drawing on a contemporary event. The main character is the Persian King Miriways. He has a daughter Samischa from a relationship before his marriage, but it is not known where she lives. Now, following an outright victory, Miriways wants this daughter to marry Prince Sophi for political reasons. Sophi loves Bemira without knowing who she is; Bemira’s sister’s friend Nisibis loves the reserved Murzah, whom Zemir would like to expel. The theme of the opera becomes clear right at the beginning: all the main characters are exposed to the conflict between individual inclination and duty, whereas the concept of rational love is contemplated. With his music, Telemann deepens the clear and sensitive portrayal of the individual and expounds a nuanced spectrum of sounds for different emotions, ranging from intimate reflection to the grand entrance. All in all, in this opera Telemann pursues an elegant, expressively-inspired and finely-worked style.
In Die Last-tragende Liebe oder Emma und Eginhard (1728) several strands and levels of plot are interwoven in complex fashion. The serious is intertwined with the comic, affairs of state with the individually human. People of high rank and lower rank communicate with each other, one group perfectly understanding the language of the other and even capable of speaking it if necessary. Charlemagne, emerging victorious from a war, learns that his daughter Emma and his secretary Eginhard have fallen in love with each other. As Emperor, Charlemagne, pressed by his wife Fastrath, has to oppose this relationship, but as a loving father he comes into conflict, as Emma has to decide between her love or a marriage befitting her social standing. In addition to this, Emma is wooed by Prince Heswin who in turn is loved by Emma’s friend Hildegard. The servant Barbara, who is pursued by the factotum Urban, is in love with Eginhard, but it is Steffen, the commentator on everything, who succeeds in winning her. Telemann’s highly complex music, expressive and emotional, artistic and stylish, is suited to each and every situation and level – “an incomprable masterpiece by Herr Telemann who is never praised enough”, as the printed libretto stated.
For the opera Flavius Bertaridus, König der Longobarden (1729), modelled on an opera seria, an Italian libretto was adapted, with some Italian arias retained. The exiled King Bertaridus returns to his native land, where his sister Flavia is married to the new ruler Grimoald; he attempts to approach Rodelinda, the wife of Bertaridus, who has arrived there with their son under a false name. Bertaridus’ trusted Onulfus has fallen in love with Flavia and tries to win her by every means. Disguise and confusion drive this drama about love, fidelity and jealousy to a peak. Telemann found a mature and very expressive musical language for this work, modelled on the Italian style.
In contrast to the opera Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe oder Orpheus (1726), also in three languages and based on a French model, Der misslungene Brautwechsel oder Richardus I (1726) is an adaptation, based on Handel’s Riccardo primo, with the original arias retained. The recitatives which carry the plot forward were newly-written and set to music. The heroic main plot, which deals with friendship and fidelity in different combinations, is complemented by a comic discourse-orientated sub-plot. The confrontation between German-language recitatives and additions with the Italian arias produces a special and rare aesthetic charm.
The surviving compositions demonstrate the magnificent variety in Telemann’s music-theatrical output; using dramaturgically intelligible libretti of sometimes quite considerable literary quality, he gave every single work an individual character.
(translation: Elizabeth Robinson)
(from [t]akte 1/2016)