Notes and Editorial Reviews
Frieder Bernius, cond; Falko Hönisch (
); Christiane Karg (
); Benjamin Hulett (
); Sophie Harmsen (
); Andrea Lauren Brown (
; Christian Feichtmair (
); Stuttgart CO &
CARUS 83.229 (3 CDs: 139:26
Text and Translation) Live: Stuttgart 4/29–30/2010
I’ll get right to the point: This is one of the most enjoyable, best-sung, best-conducted, best-played and best-recorded discs I have heard this year, and it’s going right onto my Want List.
means “spirit island,” but in fact it’s the German equivalent of Shakespeare’s
. Using a libretto based loosely on the play, Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg’s opera was premiered in Stuttgart in late 1798. Thomas Bauman tells us in his introduction to the published facsimile score (1986) that “at the premiere the opera met with great applause and enjoyed subsequent productions at Schleswig (1800), Hamburg (1803), Breslau (1805), Leipzig (1806), Würzburg (1808), Konigsburg (1809), and Mannheim (1817).” Stuttgart revived it in 1814 and 1889. The present recording, the first ever of this opera, was taken from live performances in Stuttgart last year, given in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
The music is surprisingly advanced for its day. In weight of sound and density of orchestral texture, it often approaches
, still a few years away. There is much solo work for the woodwinds, both as a choir (the combination of clarinets and bassoons is heard often) and as soloists (the oboe especially is exploited in this capacity), a cue Zumsteeg took from Mozart, whose operas he knew well. Harmonic twists, pungent dissonances, deceptive cadences, and tonal surprises abound, beginning right with the first aria, which opens in A?-Major following an overture in C.
In addition, Zumsteeg varies the instrumental coloring often enough to keep the interest high. The spirit choruses are sung either with winds only or
. In act III alone we find an orchestral interlude depicting the struggle between the good (Maja) and evil (Sycorax) spirits, a duet accompanied only by the mandora (a plucked instrument similar to the lute), a male chorus of seamen (think ahead to
The Flying Dutchman
), and a stirring march with prominent trumpets and extra drums; the sheer quantity of noise produced in the latter number is quite thrilling. Added to the expected arias for each of the principals we find several each of duets, trios, quartets, and quintets, plus sextets in the act finales. It really is a remarkable piece of work! So why hasn’t it kept the stage as Mozart’s operas have? Probably for the same reason Schubert’s operas failed: Despite much wonderful music, as theater the overall design lacks dramatic thrust and momentum.
The performance is virtually faultless, the playing immaculate. Right from the first blast of sound from the period-instrument orchestra, there is a tingle of excitement that does not let up for more than two hours. There is bite, weight, and elegance as needed. Every phrase is lovingly shaped, rhythms are crisp, intonation is well-nigh perfect, balance and blend likewise. Conductor Frieder Bernius maintains a sense of driving energy, and his sense of total commitment is almost palpable. The timpanist is a star in himself. Bernius ensures startling dynamic contrasts on a level we’re not accustomed to in music of this age.
There is not a weak link in the cast. Christiane Karg’s Miranda is sung with great elegance and poise. Every note is perfectly placed; nothing is ever screechy or strained, even well above the staff. Benjamin Hulett’s Fernando is a sweet-toned tenor of great loveliness and expressive suavity, though on occasion he tends to shout in the upper range. The vocal ease and brilliance of Andrea Lauren Brown’s Ariel reminds me of Wilma Lipp a couple of generations earlier—fresh and pure as Swiss mountain air. Caliban is something of a cross between Mozart’s Osmin in
and Beethoven’s Pizarro in
—not quite as funny as the former, nor as evil as the latter, but probably the opera’s most engaging character. He has plenty of patter but also moments of drama (one aria even looks forward to Pizarro’s “Ha! welch ein Augenblick!”). Christian Feichtmair makes the most of the role. While Prospero may come off as a bit of a stick, Falko Hönisch invests the role with such beauty of tone that one can overlook his stodgy character.
The recorded sound is stunning in its clarity and brilliance. Though it’s a live performance, I hear not a trace of intrusive noise from the audience; even the applause is suppressed. The libretto is in German only, but there is a synopsis with track numbers and an excellent introductory essay by Adrian Kuhl. At 140 minutes, the music could easily have been contained on two discs rather than three. Nevertheless, whatever you pay for this outstanding production, it’s worth every penny.
FANFARE: Robert Markow
Works on This Recording
Die Geisterinsel by Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg
Sophie Harmsen (Mezzo Soprano),
Christiane Karg (Soprano),
Benjamin Hulett (Tenor),
Hönisch Falko (Baritone),
Christian Immler (Bass)
Stuttgart Chamber Choir,
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