Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai or Otto Nicolai, as he is generally known, was born in Königsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad in Russia, in June 1810. He died at 38, from a stroke, in May 1849 in Berlin. Today, the composer is mostly remembered for being the founder of the Wiener Philharmoniker (then the Philharmonische Academie) and for his last opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
. This romantic “Singspiel” was to a libretto by Hermann Salomon Mosenthal, based on Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, which was premiered only a couple of months before the composer’s death.
Nicolai was not however a one-hit wonder. He was actually a multi-talented artist and a musical prodigy as a child. This was exploited by his father and possibly caused Nicolai to run away from home, at only sixteen. He first studied in Berlin with Lieder
composer Carl Friedrich Zelter and then went to Rome where his teacher was Giuseppe Baini. He made a successful career in Italy and later in Vienna. Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
was his only opera to a libretto in German; all the others were in Italian. Il Templario
was the second of his four Italian operas, premiered in February 1840 at the Teatro Regio in Turin. Nicolai enjoyed great success with his Italian operas and after Il Templario
was rightly proclaimed a great “Italian” composer. His last opera was a comedy in the German “Singspiel” genre but the Italian operas are all firmly rooted in the bel canto
tradition, which was popular at the time and was led by such luminaries as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
is to a libretto by Girolamo Maria Marini after Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe
. The music follows conventional Italian forms and structures, and is rich in elegant, fluid melodies. As with all bel canto
operas, the singing is the most important component, often requiring virtuoso singers, capable of impeccable legato
and high flights of coloratura
. The music effectively merges with the text, conveying power and dramatic impact. The choice of Walter Scott’s famous novel, Ivanhoe,
as the basis for the libretto was not unusual. Walter Scott and all things Scottish were great favourites at the time and there were more than twenty operas based on his works, of which the most famous are Rossini’s La donna del lago
based on one of his poems and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
adapted from his historical novel “The Bride of Lammermoor”.
Sadly, Nicolai’s only opera that remained popular and is still often performed today is his last, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
, albeit that this popularity is almost confined to Germany. This is possibly because it was composed in the typical German comedy style of the “Singspiel”. His other four operas, as mentioned, all in Italian, are never performed or heard nowadays and so this production of Il Templario
was indeed an event to be welcomed. Chemnitz and its opera theatre, in Germany, should be congratulated for bringing it to the stage. It made therefore absolute sense to record it for posterity.
The music of Il Templario
is rather beautiful. The Robert-Schumann Philharmonie and the Chorus of the Chemnitz Opera under the direction of conductor Frank Beermann deliver an excellent, insightful performance of Nicolai’s powerful melodramma
. In fact, the best, most effective moments of this recording are definitely the ones where chorus and orchestra perform together. Sadly, the soloists are not always up to the task and the sheer beauty of the singing - the strength of bel canto
operas - is occasionally lost.
American tenor Stanley Jackson, though an established name in the operatic world, is to my mind the weakest link. He sings the leading tenor role of Vilfredo d’Ivanhoe but his performance is definitely not among his best. His voice is often strained and does not possess a strong, assured coloratura.
is adequate and he manages some elegant passages but the role is technically demanding and Jackson’s voice is clearly stretched to its limits. To his credit, he really tries hard and although he sometimes achieves the grace and style needed for such a role, particularly in scene IV of Act II with Cedrico and Ravena, the effort to reach the highest notes is just too obvious and spoils the effect.
Finnish bass, Kauta Räsänen, as Cedrico, delivers an adequate performance; his voice is precise and technically assured with only a slight strain in its highest register, however it lacks emotion, sounding a little distant and dry. His Italian pronunciation is also not of the best and it is not immediately obvious what language he is singing in. German baritone, Hans Christoph Begemann, as Briano di Bois-Gilbert, delivers one of the best performances of the recording. He has a solid technique and a warm, expressive voice, singing his part with passion and relative ease, at times with some elegant phrasing and dramatic impact.
Germany’s Judith Kuhn, makes a suitable Ravena. She has a clear soprano tone, with a good technique and sufficient coloratura
to sustain the role; however, there is a slight but noticeable occasional strain in her highest register. Nevertheless, her voice is dramatically expressive and she achieves an interesting performance, which is enjoyable enough though not completely convincing. It is up to Finnish mezzo-soprano, Tiina Penttinen, as Rebecca, to give us the most impressive performance of the CD: her tone is warm, emotional and possesses dramatic impact. She has a stylish legato
, singing with grace and phrasing some passages with elegant sensibility. Her voice is flexible though she can on occasions sound a little stretched on some of the higher notes. Her lower and middle register are solid, with a dusky undertone that adds expression. German baritone, Andreas Kindschuh, as the grand master of the Templar Knights, sounds suitably masterful and believable as their majestic leader; and German tenor, André Riemer, is effective as Isacco di York.
This recording of Il Templario
is a commendable, enjoyable though not memorable effort. Having waited eagerly for it, I was a little disappointed though not with the composer. Nicolai’s score is truly beautiful, with elegant, fluid melodies, alternating with genuinely moving and powerfully dramatic passages. The orchestra and chorus do full justice to the music but sadly, its inherent quality is on occasions let down by some of the soloists.