Notes and Editorial Reviews
Enjoyable Singspiel in a fine performance with an impressive cast.
The German conductor Frieder Bernius, whose activities are concentrated in Stuttgart, regularly pays attention to music which in one way or another is connected to this city. Only recently he recorded an opera by Justin Heinrich Knecht, who for some time worked in Stuttgart, and wrote his opera
Die Aeolsharfe for performance there in 1808 - it never took place. The recording was positively reviewed here by Göran Forsling. With
Die Geisterinsel another opera - or rather, a
Singspiel - for Stuttgart has been recorded, which Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg composed in 1797.
Zumsteeg spent most of his life in Stuttgart. He was born in Sachsenflur, near Mergentheim, in what is now Baden-Württemberg, whose capital is Stuttgart. His father was a military man and later was in the service of Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg. Johann Rudolph was to follow in his father's footsteps as he entered the military academy which the Duke had founded. But since he was musically talented he would make a career in music instead. He was educated at the cello and in composition, and most of his ten surviving cello concertos were written during his formative years. Soon he turned his attention to music-drama: at the age of just 17 he set Klopstock's ode
Die Frühlingsfeier. He also composed songs for Schiller's play
Die Räuber, a result of his friendship with the poet.
In 1781 Zumsteeg was appointed cellist in the court orchestra, and in 1793 he was promoted to
Konzertmeister. Zumsteeg played a key role in the promotion of Mozart's operas, as he performed
Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni and
Così fan tutte. He has become known in the main for his songs with keyboard, and in this respect he is an important link between the era of the song with basso continuo and the
Klavierlied of the early 19th century.
Die Geisterinsel is based on
The Tempest by William Shakespeare. It was only in the middle of the 18th century that the works of the English poet and playwright became known and appreciated in Germany. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was the first to pay attention to his works. Zumsteeg made use of an adaptation by Friedrich Hildebrand Freiherr von Einsiedel (1750-1828) which was further adapted by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter (1746-1797). The adaptation not only regarded a translation into German, but also the cutting of several of Shakespeare's characters and the creation of some new roles. The libretto was set by Zumsteeg in recitatives and arias which were linked by spoken text.
This piece belongs to the genre of the
Singspiel. Typical of the
Singspiel is not only the spoken text but also the inclusion of song-like arias and ariettas. Zumsteeg mixes various forms like aria and recitative into large-scale scenes. This can be heard in the finales which end the first and second acts. There is a clear influence from the
opera buffa, in particular in the character of the gnome Caliban, the bad boy of the piece. The work begins with an overture, which is followed by the only dacapo aria, a reminder of the
Several aspects of Zumsteeg’s composition are notable. Firstly, there is a clear distinction between the arias of the various characters. As Caliban represents the
opera buffa, his contributions are mostly rather simple and often of a declamatory character, with hardly any coloratura. The role of the sylph Ariel, though, is much more elaborate: her arias feature plenty of coloratura and are quite virtuosic. Another key character is Fernando, prince of Naples. His royal status is emphasized by the sophisticated nature of his music. Miranda, the daughter of the former duke of Milan, Prospero, is portrayed as "a girlish character, [built] far from civilization" - as Adrian Kuhl writes in his liner-notes - but through the coloratura passages of her role we are reminded of her "superior social status". The choirs are interesting: one of them is accompanied by wind alone, another is
a cappella. The orchestral colours are also eloquently used to express dramatic development.
It cannot be appreciated enough that pieces like this are brought to our attention. Historically they are often interesting, and therefore mentioned in history books. A recording like this gives the opportunity to hear for ourselves why they are of historical importance. This
Singspiel has its musical merits as well. As this is a recording of a live performance it is understandable that large parts have been cut. A number of sung passages are omitted - printed in grey in the booklet - and the whole spoken text is also left out. This part is not printed in the booklet which is understandable as it would be incomprehensible to non-German readers. Although the synopsis is extensive this is no compensation for the lack of English translations of the lyrics.
As in his previous recording of Knecht's
Die Aeolsharfe Frieder Bernius has brought together an impressive cast which has no weak links. At first I thought that Falko Hönisch had too little presence, but while listening I got used to it; maybe it was deliberate that they chose not to deploy a more powerful voice. Andrea Lauren Brown has the vocally most demanding part as Ariel, and she masters her role magnificently. She sings her arias with impressive ease, but also portrays her character convincingly. The tenor Benjamin Hulett is also impressive in the role of Fernando. He has a beautiful and agile voice, and his delivery is immaculate. Christian Feichtmair is spot-on as Caliban, and Sophie Harmsen does well as Fernando's squire Fabio. Göran Forsling, in his review of Knecht's
Die Aeolsharfe, listed the many qualities of the Kammerchor Stuttgart but felt that they missed "raw uninhibited power". I understand what he means, and to a certain extent agree. Some choruses are probably a bit too polished, like the choir of the crew-members of the ship that is to sink at the end of Act 1. But the choruses of the spirits in Acts 1 and 2 and the chorus in the closing episode of the work are very well sung. The orchestra includes a full battery of wind and percussion, and plays with vigour and dramatic flair.
We should be thankful for this recording of a previously neglected piece of music for the stage. It is a shame, though, that this kind of work seems only to be recorded live, and as a result almost inevitably are heavily cut. I believe this piece - and that also goes for Knecht's
Die Aeolsharfe - are good enough to be performed at full length, preferably staged. Probably the time hasn't yet come that an opera such as this is fully appreciated and assessed alongside the operas of, for instance, Mozart.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International