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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sakontala - opera in two acts (ca. 1820) D701, (unfinished); reconstructed by Karl Aage RASMUSSEN (b. 1947)
Simone Nold (soprano) - Sakontala; Donát Havár (tenor) – Duschmanta; Martin Snell (bass) – Kanna; Konrad Jarnot (bass) – Madhawia; Stephan Loges (bass) – Durwasas
Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
rec. live, Herbstliche Musiktage in Bad Urach, Stadthalle Metzingen, Germany, 4 October 2006. DDD
Booklet notes in German, English and French; Libretto in German only
world premiere recording
CARUS 83218 [55:52 + 30:27]
Experience Classicsonline

While Schubert is a much admired composer and a large number of his compositions are acknowledged as works of genius, there is still a considerable number of his works that have been neglected. To this class, belong Schubert’s operas, which are almost entirely unknown. This is largely due, on the one hand, to generally poor libretti, often written by Schubert’s well intentioned friends who unfortunately lacked the necessary writing talent and on the other hand to the general belief that Schubert’s operas are dramatically ineffective. Therefore a reconstruction of an opera such as Sakontala is to be applauded and having this historic performance recorded live for posterity is a most welcome endeavour.

In the autumn of 1820, Schubert began working on a large-scale romantic opera in three acts, with partly spoken dialog, for soloists, choir and orchestra. This was Sakontala. The libretto, based on a drama by classical Indian poet Kalidasa (ca. 500 AD), was written by Schubert’s friend, physics professor Johann Philipp Neumann (1774-1849). The fact that it is based on a literary masterpiece, sets the work apart from all other libretti that Schubert set to music and which were definitely second rate.

Rescuing one of Schubert’s numerous unfinished works for the stage from obscure anonymity was an idea from Finnish cultural “entrepeneur” Antti Sairanen. Sakontala was chosen because of the quality of the original text.

To undertake the reconstruction, Sairanen contacted distinguished Danish author, conductor and composer Karl Aage Rasmussen, an award-winning musician and scholar, and an established lecturer in many European countries and in the USA. The initial idea was to combine Schubert’s unfinished score with new music composed by Rasmussen but, as Sairanen managed to obtain a copy of the original manuscript from the Schubert Society, in Tübingen, it became clear that the composition was not a real fragment in the true sense of the word, as initially expected. There were more than 400 pages of unknown music written in Schubert’s own hand. The pages, with 16 staves, were organised as an orchestral score and Schubert had fully composed the vocal parts with text. However, there were hardly any notes about orchestration or harmonisation and only rarely did he write accompaniment. Midway through the work, Schubert abruptly stopped composing. The reasons are not clear but, according to Rasmussen, this could have been because he was having doubts about the last part of the libretto, the third act, which added new developments and events to Kalidasa’s play. Rasmussen was able to get the full Naumann libretto and could establish that the part of it that Schubert finished setting to music formed a meaningful complete work, dramaturgically speaking. As he explains in his own words, Rasmussen was able to complete the score, fill in the blanks and, by moving some scenes from the complete first act to the unfinished second, obtain dramatic unity and create an opera that lasts approximately two hours in performance.

The story revolves around king Duschmanta who falls in love with Sakontala and gives her a ring as proof that he wishes to marry her. Durwasas, a hermit and holy man, offended that Sakontala does not pay him enough respect because of being in love, calls down a curse on her, which will make the king unable to recognise her. Durwasas mitigates the curse by enabling the king to recognise Sakontala if she shows him the ring. But there are demons that ensure she loses the ring. And so, when she presents herself with her foster-father at court, she is cast off by the king who cannot remember her. In act two, a fisherman finds the ring, which has the king’s name engraved on it. Taken to Duschmanta for trying to sell the king’s ring, the fisherman confesses he found it in the belly of a fish. When the king sees the ring, his memory returns and eventually the two lovers reunite in a final choral scene, with High Priest Kanna advising to always trust the wisdom of the Gods. As a dramatic plot, this is complete and makes full sense.

A third act seems unnecessary and this might be what was in Schubert’s mind and the reason why he abruptly stopped composing. Therefore, to have the opera in two acts appears a logical idea and a good decision by Rasmussen. His was obviously a labour of love and, intelligently, Rasmussen does not try to update Schubert’s style of composing or to re-write his sketches in a contemporary way. The only “modernisation” is that modern instruments, like valve horns and pedal timpani were preferred to historical ones. Rasmussen uses the fragmented manuscript as the sole background for all technical and artistic decisions, and here lies the beauty and accomplishment of the work. The reconstruction has resulted in a delightful opera by Schubert, dramatically powerful, with both tragic and comic elements, and including very beautiful music.

The first act is undoubtedly the most accomplished of the two. It has moments that reminded me of Mozart; the ensemble music is appealing, containing some lovely, cheerful melodies that warm the heart. The second act is shorter and was the one that made me think of some of Schubert’s best songs, like the powerful Erlkönig. The first act also includes a wonderfully expressive, romantic aria sung by Sakontala, where she declares her love for the king. Soprano Simone Nold, who sings the title role, performs the aria with delicate sensitivity and her crystalline clear voice puts it across very effectively. Her depiction of Sakontala is fresh and moving, particularly in the scenes where the king does not recognise her and towards the end, during the touching final duet with Duschmanta. Tenor Donát Havár makes a convincing Duschmanta. His performance is accomplished and attractive, and his voice sounds suitably young and sparkling throughout. But to my mind, the best singing comes without doubt from basses Martin Snell as the high priest Kanna and Konrad Jarnot as Madhavia, the court jester. Snell is majestic and powerful; his voice carries the music easily without any apparent strain or effort. Jarnot manages a wonderfully ironical, funny rendition of Madhavia’s aria where the jester mocks hunting, making me wish each time that I could see him on stage. The other soloists are all excellent and the Kammerchor Stuttgart as well as of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen give a truly great performance, delivering the music with style and living up to their high artistic standards. Frieder Bernius conducts with real insight into Schubert’s musicianship and sensitivity, achieving a delicate balance between the music and the singing. He confidently leads the soloists, choir and orchestra in a remarkable, fabulous and very enjoyable performance of this nearly “lost” work by one of the greatest composers of the romantic era. Together, they fully achieve Rasmussen’s objective with his reconstruction of the opera, which was, in his own words, ‘to give the general public access to almost two hours of unknown music by Schubert’.

I simply adored this CD. I loved the music, the singing and the performance in general, regretting only the fact that I was not present at the Stadthalle Metzingen to have witnessed live this historic and wonderful world premiere of what I personally would name Schubert’s best work for the stage.

Margarida Mota-Bull


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