German keyboard player and conductor Ludger Rémy regularly
performs and records forgotten repertoire. This time it is an
opera by the German composer Joseph Schuster.
was the son of a bass singer, who had sung under Johann Adolf
Hasse in Dresden. He was sent to Italy by the Elector of Saxony,
accompanying his countryman Naumann, and after returning started
to compose comic operas. A couple of years later he went to Italy
again, where he studied with the famous 'Padre' Martini, and started
to compose operas. Demofoonte was first performed in Forlì
in 1776: it was used to open the new theatre. Although Forlì
was a provincial city, Demofoonte was sung by some of Italy's
most famous opera singers.
libretto dates from 1731 and was written by the famous poet Metastasio,
and set to music by several composers. In fact, his libretti were
used well into the 19th century. They date from the 1720s and
1730s, the baroque era, when arias were relatively short. In the
classical period, however, arias became considerably longer and
therefore cuts had to be made in order to avoid opera performances
becoming too long. Schuster followed some of the cuts Paisiello
made in his version of Demofoonte from 1775, although Schuster
also restored some parts Paisiello had omitted.
story goes like this: Demofoonte's kingdom is suffering under
a curse. According to an oracle the life of a virgin must be sacrificed
every year "as long as the innocent usurper sits on the throne".
Minister Matusio tries to bring his daughter Dircea out of the
country to protect her from being sacrificed. Demofoonte and Matusio
both don't know that Dircea is secretly married to the crown prince
Timante, and that they have a son. Timante is supposed to marry
Creusa, a princess from another country. Timante's younger brother
Cherinto is accompanying her to Demofoonte's kingdom, but falls
in love with her. When he meets Creusa Timante tells her he can't
marry her, but doesn't give any reason for it. In the meantime
Dircea has been caught when trying to flee the country and has
been imprisoned; the king decides she will be sacrificed. When
Timante refuses to marry Creusa in change for the release of Dircea,
the king orders the immediate sacrifice of Dircea. Timante decides
to try to release her. His attempts fail, and Timante and Dircea
has befriended Creusa, who now asks Demofoonte for mercy. The
king decides to release Timante and Dircea. Timante is willing
to give up the throne in favour of Cherinto.
then a letter is found which reveals that Dircea is the daughter
of Demofoonte, which makes Timante and Dircea brother and sister.
Timante reacts by taking his distance from Dircea. Then another
letter reveals that Timante is the son of Matusio. The marriage
between Timante and Dircea is legal, and Cherinto is the real
crown prince and can marry Creusa. And no more virgins are sacrificed,
since Timante is no longer the "innocent usurper of the throne".
presentation of this recording leaves something to be desired.
The overture comes from another opera by Schuster, Rübezahl.
The booklet doesn’t explain why. The character of Adrasto has
an aria in Act I, but the synopsis doesn’t mention him, and in
the liner notes he is just described as ‘minor figure’ – but who
exactly is he? Extensive information is given about the conductor,
the orchestra and its leader, but no word is devoted to the singers.
Isn’t that a little odd?
is difficult to assess the dramatic qualities of Schuster's opera
on the basis of this recording. The first reason is the huge number
of cuts made in the score. The booklet says: "A number of recitatives
were cut for this recording, and these texts do not appear here."
Well, quite a number of scenes have been cut completely: scenes
6 and 7 from Act I, scenes 2, 3, 8 and 9 from Act II and scene
2 from Act III. And some scenes have been cut quite drastically
as well. That is very unfortunate. It breaks up the dramatic development
of the opera. As a result this recording is more a collection
of highlights than an opera recording. While listening one is
almost forced to use the pause button of the CD player in order
to read the text between square brackets which explains the content
of the omitted scenes. That doesn't help to keep the dramatic
interpretation doesn't make things any better. Most voices are
quite good and the orchestra certainly is. But never one has the
feeling to listen to a dramatic story - there is just no theatrical
atmosphere whatsoever. The recitatives are handled with too little
flexibility and rhythmic freedom, the tempi are slowish and there
is very little lively interaction between the protagonists. Hearing
this I can understand why some people think recitatives are boring.
is a lack of differentiation in the arias as well. Both singers
and orchestra should play a little more with tempo and dynamics
in order to enhance the tension.
Mields has a very nice voice, and does well in the aria 'Padre,
perdona' (Act I), but lacks the dramatic power needed for the
aria 'Se tutti i mali miei' (Act II). Marie Melnitzki has a completely
different voice, well suited to the dramatic but smallish role
of Creusa. I don't like her slight vibrato, though, and in her
two arias - reminiscent of the aria of the Queen of the Night
in Mozart's Zauberflöte - she fails to deliver the full power
of rage displayed there. Jörg Waschinski is well cast, and
in fact one of the more satisfying singers of this recording,
although I have heard him better in other recordings. The altos
are just too static and lack dramatic power. Bernhard Schafferer
has an annoying tremolo in his voice, which makes his singing
unpleasant to listen to. The tenors have beautiful voices, but
- again - lack the imagination and the feeling for a dramatic
work like this. The cadenzas at the end of the arias are not very
imaginative. In addition, the pronunciation of Italian isn’t very
orchestra plays very well, and creates nice dynamic contrasts,
but most of the time their playing is too much down-to-earth and
have often admired Ludger Rémy, who has delivered great
recordings of neglected compositions. But opera, I have to say
on the basis of this recording, is not his forte. He is well advised
to leave that to others.
the music is well worth listening to. The characterisation of
the protagonists in the arias is quite convincing. In the liner
notes Steffen Voss rightly points out the ‘Sturm und Drang’ character
of Schuster’s music, which is reflected for example in the sudden
changes in tempo within arias. And the crescendi in the orchestral
part show the influence of Jommelli and the Mannheim school.
speaking this opera is in no way inferior to operas by better-known
composers of Schuster’s time – at least those I have heard. Among
the highlights are the aria of Dircea ‘Padre, perdona’ and the
duet of Timante and Dircea at the end of Act II.
sincerely hope that some time we will have the opportunity to
hear this work in its entirety in a really good and dramatic performance.