When Stephen Hough’s disc of Hummel piano concertos came out in the early 1990s, it was a revelation. Here was a much neglected composer whose music responded to Hough’s treatment and made us realise that there was rather more to this man than we might have thought. Having not come across any of Hummel’s fifteen operas on disc before, I had high hopes of this recording.
Mathilde von Guise was one of Hummel’s best known operas, partly because the composer actually issued a printed piano score which was published in Leipzig in 1823. It was written for Vienna where it was premiered, in German, at the Kartnertortheater. As was the case with all German lyric drama at the time, it was in the form of a singspiel: with spoken dialogue. Hummel decided to perform the work again in 1821 at the Court Theatre in Weimar where he was working and made some minor revisions to the piece, along with changing the overture
The original of the libretto, is actually a French opéra comique, premiered in Paris in 1808. In 1823, whilst the publishers Peters were producing the vocal score Hummel tried to interest them in an Italian version presumably on the basis that Italian was still the standard language for opera.
In fact, that Italian version does not seem to exist and this new recording uses a brand new Italian translation. I am a little unclear why it was felt necessary to commission a new translation when the opera would surely be perfectly viable in German.
So, what is Hummel’s Mathilde von Guise actually like?
In style the music is highly reminiscent of Weber. Hummel undoubtedly had a great lyrical talent along with a knack for delightful and imaginative orchestration. His vocal writing requires considerable bravura and makes strong demands on the singers. The range demanded of both Mathilde and the Duke is two octaves. That said, the aria is not the most important form in the opera. Like many of Rossini’s operas, Hummel uses a great many concerted numbers. His instrumental writing is often virtuoso as well.
So, if you take any of the major sections from the piece, you would undoubtedly be more than charmed. This is delightful music: civilised and poised with some lovely transparent and refined writing.
But as a drama, it rather fails. In part this is due to the poor quality of the libretto - the story is a poor thing of rags and patches. The heroine Mathilde (Kristine Gailite) is destined by her brother the Duke (Pierre-Yves Pruvot) to marry the king of Poland - a character who does not appear on stage. Mathilde is in love with the Count of Beaufort (Philippe Do). He is not only too low in station but is the Duke’s secretary. To complicate things further, the Baroness (Hjordis Thebault) is in love with him. In the end the King of France - another character who does not actually appear in the opera - makes Beaufort a Duke and honour is satisfied.
A stronger composer could have done more with it. After all, some of Bellini’s and Donizetti’s libretti are pretty thin. Hummel seems to have been content though to take the piece at face value; the music jogs along nicely but never really catches fire.
The performers do give it their best shot. Granted, the virtuoso nature of the roles sometimes taxes them, but the overall impression is one of civilised charm. Kristine Gailite is an attractive Mathilde and Philippe Do makes credible love interest as Beaufort. The remaining cast all contribute and you feel that this is a real ensemble piece.
The Slovakian period instrument ensemble Solamente Naturali provides lively and stylish accompaniment under the direction of Didier Talpain.
The CD set comes with a booklet which provides ample information about the background to the piece, but only a rudimentary synopsis and no libretto. The Brilliant Classics web site has libretti for most of their operas available for down-load, but Mathilde von Guise does not seem to have made it there yet.
The disc also includes Hummel’s original 1810 overture as an appendix.
If this was a full price release, I would be wary of recommending it. But at Brilliant’s budget price, it is highly recommendable for anyone who is interested in what was happening to German opera in the period between Beethoven and Wagner.