The opera house in Leipzig was built in 1692 and in 1700, under
the auspices of the court of Augustus the Strong in Dresden,
it became something of a training institution for Leipzig students.
Graduates included David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch,
Johann Georg Pisendel, Gottfried Heinrich Stolzel and Georg
Philipp Telemann. The house closed in 1720 and a chapter in
German musical history was forgotten.
Quite what the students actually got up to in the theatre is
difficult to reconstruct nowadays. Librettos exist, in part
or in full, from 74 operas performed in Leipzig between 1692
and 1720, but few complete musical scores. Regarding Telemann’s
own contribution, he claimed to have written 20 operas for Leipzig
but we can only identify the names of around a third. He spent
the years 1701 to 1705 in Leipzig, so if his total is true,
he must have been highly industrious.
One problem with the modern acceptance of Telemann’s music
is surely the sheer profusion; he wrote far more cantatas than
Bach. It means that there is no single place to grab hold of
Telemann, especially as his fecundity means that people have
a tendency to suspect that if he wrote so much music, then it
must be of a generally uniformly unsatisfactory quality. Thankfully
this is beginning to change; this recording of a new reconstruction
of Telemann’s opera Germanicus was made in association
with the Magdeburger Telemann Festtage, a festival now held
in Telemann’s birth place every two years.
Germanicus was written in 1704 for Leipzig and repeated
two years later in Hamburg at the instigation of Gottfried Grunewald
who sang the title role in the 1704 performance. Then in 1710
it was presented again in Leipzig. For this occasion Telemann
re-worked the piece and included a selection of arias in Italian
as operas in a mix of German and Italian had become the fashion.
Unfortunately the Hamburg performance under Grunewald’s
auspices seems to have resulted in the opera being attributed
to him; so that the surviving selection of arias from the opera
was filed away under Grunewald’s name. Recent scholarship
has elucidated things, partly because the libretto by Dorothea
Lachs was so well appreciated on its own. Now scholars affirm
that the surviving arias are from Germanicus by Telemann
The whole opera does not survive: only forty arias and duets
from a total of fifty-three. To make the work viable Michael
Maul has produced an edition which adds other arias from Telemann
and his contemporaries. More significantly Telemann’s
recitatives have not survived either. Here Maul has supplied
a spoken narration with some elements of spoken dialogue. In
his note about the re-construction Maul describes the result
as a Singspiel. The narrator, Dieter Bellman, plays a major
part and most of the characters say little or nothing.
We should be grateful to Maul and to Gotthold Schwarz and his
forces for providing us with the opportunity to hear the young
Telemann in operatic mode.
The opera deals with the Roman general Germanicus (Henryk Bohm),
his wife Agrippina (Elisabeth Scholl) and their son Caligula
(Friedrich Praetorius). It opens with Germanicus’s victory
over his enemy Arminius (Tobias Berndt) who is believed dead.
In fact Arminius attempts to abduct the virtuous Agrippina.
In his turn Arminius is captured by the Roman general Florus
(Matthias Rexroth) who is plotting to gain the imperial throne
- Germanicus is next in line.
Arminius escapes, Agrippina is falsely accused of being in love
with Florus, whose attempt to assassinate Germanicus results
in Agrippina being ordered to be executed. Separately there
is a misunderstanding between Claudia (Olivia Stahn), daughter
of a prince, and Arminius. Arminius and Claudia are in love
but Claudia is promised to Lucius. All gets complicated and
there is an earthquake and the appearance of a spirit; ultimately
all ends happily.
Listening to it now, it is hard to get too worked up about the
opera and the characters. What we can appreciate is the variety
and vivacity of the music of the young Telemann. The arias are
all short, generally around three minutes. The strongest and
biggest role is that of Agrippina who is able to go through
the full gamut of emotions thanks to the machinations of the
libretto. That’s what the libretto was for; not to provide
logic, but to put the noble characters through a series of emotional
wringers, enabling the composer to display his major characters
in a great variety of affekts.
Elisabeth Scholl gives full vent to Agrippina’s emotions
but is rather inclined to be unstable - dare I say squally -
in the upper register. In this she is matched by Matthias Rexroth,
who sings both Florus and Lucius; I’m afraid that I did
not warm to his voice either. The remaining cast members are
creditable and highly listenable and give fine performances
of Telemann’s fascinating music, without ever quite digging
into the drama. It is unfortunate that Agrippina’s big
Act 3 scene where she is about to go to her death has to be
presented in music by Melchior Hoffmann as Telemann’s
original does not survive.
In the presentation of the drama, the singers are hampered by
the format. The vast bulk of the narrative is borne by Dieter
Bellman whose spoken tones are that of a radio announcer rather
than a lively narrator. Frankly, I find that he kills the drama
stone dead and I would vastly have preferred to have had the
arias on their own. That way you could listen to Telemann’s
lively and involving music and let it speak for itself.
Gotthold Schwarz and the Sachisches Barockorchester provide
strong support and the orchestra gives involving performances
of the overture and the interpolated dance movements.
The CD booklet includes a long article about the origins of
the opera, notes from Michael Maul about the reconstruction,
artist biographies, detailed synopsis and the text and translations
of the arias. What we don’t have is the text of the spoken
narrations, so those people who cannot follow spoken German
will remain mystified as to the exact nature of the dramatic
This is an important set, one which helps shed light on the
young Telemann’s dramatic music. No-one would say that
Germanicus is a complete masterpiece but it includes
some fascinating and entrancing music. Unhappily Telemann’s
music is somewhat constrained by the performances and by the
use of spoken narration. Lovers of Telemann’s music will
want this set, but I don’t think that it is the last word
in performances of this opera.