TELEMANN Miraways • Michi Gaigg, cond; Markus Volpert (Miraways, Ghost of Shah Abbas); Ulrike Hofbauer (Sophi); Julie Martin du Theil (Bemira); Gabriele Hierdeis (Nisibis); Stefan Zenkl (Murzah); Ida Aldrian (Samischa); Susanne Drexl (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Zemir); Ilja Werger (Scandar, Envoy); L’Orfeo Baroque O • CPO 777 742-2 (2 CDs: 146:41 Text and Translation)
In the title of Miriways, Telemann was referring to the Pashtun tribal chieftain and army leader, Mirwais Vais Ghilzai (1673–1715). He is credited with taking rule of the province of Kandahar away from the Persians in 1709, in the process defeating much larger armies than his own. Such tales had great visibility in Europe at the time, even if many details were completely wrong, and much else was made up. Samuel Müller was an important figure in German pedagogy, but his libretto to this opera is a farrago of romantic plots and mistaken identities among entirely fictionalized characters. Ironically, Müller confuses even the real-life role of the central character, making Mirwais emperor of Persia. (It was actually his ambitious son, Mahmud Hotaki, who overthrew the Safavids to claim the Persian throne.)
The opera was premiered in 1728, one of 35 theatrical works Telemann composed between 1721 and 1738, most of them after he became musical director of the Hamburg Opera. It was the practice of the times to print librettos so that audiences might follow along, but not scores. The closing of the Opera in 1738, a shift among the public to a new, simpler musical aesthetic, and damage suffered in a succession of fires, meant the loss of much invaluable music over time. None of Handel’s Hamburg operas survive, for example, aside from one collection of his arias. Of Telemann, eight operas remain, though his autograph of Miriways has long since vanished. The first concert performance in recent times took place in 1992, according to the liner notes, which means it preceded the score’s publication by Bärenreiter by seven years. The first modern stage production took place at the Magdeburg Telemann Festival Days in 2012, and formed the basis for this recording.
Miriways is very much an opera seria of its time. The conflicts of love and duty, a scheming villain, a last-minute character revelation, lavish spectacles, da capo arias, ballets, and short airs alternating with flexibly sung secco recitative, the intermix of lower-class comic parts with highborn serious ones, all are part of a tradition—one that was even then being reformed under Zeno, and soon with greater vigor by Metastasio. Telemann was a musical polyglot who greatly enjoyed donning different musical styles, sometimes in quick succession; so it isn’t too surprising here that one finds at various points in the score the influence of Rameau, Steffani, Vinci, Keiser, and Alessandro Scarlatti. Handel is there, as well. The two were great friends, and Telemann repeatedly adapted Handel’s operas for local consumption, with newly written recitatives in German, and a more colorful instrumentation to suit the large, varied Hamburg Opera orchestra. Miriways calls for pairs of horns, oboes, oboes d’amore, and transverse flutes, in addition to a full complement of strings, basso continuo, and “flavor instruments” to occasionally sound exotic and Persian. (The drums and horns make a wonderful effect on their first appearance in the Persian chorus, “Lebe, grosser Sophi, lebe!” in a manner that suggests they may have influenced Rameau’s Les Indes galantes eight years later.)
Like Handel, again, Telemann shows an abiding concern to establish and maintain character through music. Miriways, for instance, gets martial arias and tense, chromatic harmonies that coil around themselves (“Verjage die Wolken”). Zemir, the manipulator, comes closest to the galant, with a mix of sprightly court dance rhythms (“Ja, ja, es muss mir glücken,” “Kann’s möglich sein?”). He also receives sudden bursts of exaggerated expressiveness while showing his false concern for others. It brings to mind another quality evident in quite a bit of Telemann’s music, vocal and otherwise: his sense of humor. This can also be found in a recitative built around an obsequious envoy’s florid greetings, the static continuo chords sounding almost like pedal points as he elaborates above. It is the musical equivalent of a man bowing low, slowly, with over-extensive flourishes of his hand. It is choice.
Michi Gaigg’s cast is variable, but with a few spectacular voices in the mix. Ida Aldrian is among these, with a dark mezzo and a real gift for shaping the line. “Könnt’ ich nur zu ihm nach sprechen” is an impressively slow Handelian piece on its own, but she burnishes it until it gleams. In the work’s eponymous role, Markus Volpert demonstrates a solid tone, and can handle coloratura at moderate tempos. There’s real use of the words to strong effect in his moving “Lass, mein Sohn.” Ulrike Hofbauer’s sweetly lyrical soprano voice possesses a gleaming focus, and a command of color lacking from much of the rest of the cast. On her showing here, she’d make an excellent Pamina.
For the rest, Susanne Drexl sings cleanly, but without character, as Zemir. This is a role very much in the vein of Il pastor fido’s Eurilla—a smooth, light-footed poisoner of minds—and it cries out for exactly what she doesn’t deliver. Stefan Zenkl simply can’t manage coloratura, which makes his assumption of Murzah, one of the more agility-addicted parts in the opera, problematic. Gaigg graciously moderates tempos for him, but it doesn’t help enough in this respect. In much slower pieces he demonstrates decent tone, and good attention to vocal and dramatic values. He also blends well in his duet with Gabriele Hierdeis. She possesses a lighter-than-air, wispy soubrette voice that opens at the top on a beautiful, full lyric tone. Her fioritura is a bit uneasy but usually secure, and she colors “Mein widriges Geschicke” very effectively. Julie Martin du Theil sounds tremulous in the lower reaches, but her voice shines the higher it rises, and she manages her figures skillfully. Finally, Ilja Werger is the reverse of Zenkl: He tosses off what figurations he receives with ease, and acts well, but the voice quivers around pitch a bit too much for the youthful tenor he appears to be. The cast ornaments repeats sensibly, as does the orchestra, showing Gaigg’s familiarity with the custom of the day. L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra performs with its customary precision and energy.
Worth getting? I think so. Despite some less than stellar voices, there’s a palpable sense of theater to most of these performances. (And I suspect some on-stage movement, too, judging from background sounds.) The opera is definitely a strong one, if not on the level of the finest by the likes of Handel or Rameau. The libretto is competently written, for all its clichés. I expect more attention to be paid to it in the future, but for now, this recording of Miraways is a fine achievement indeed.