Christian Ludwig BOXBERG (1670 – 1729)
Sardanapalus – Oper in deutscher Sprache (1698) [164:46]
Sardanapalus / Apollo – Jan Kobow (tenor)
Salomena / Venus – Rinnat Moriah (soprano)
Agrina / Juno – Theodora Baka (mezzo)
Didonia / Diana – Cornelia Samuelis (soprano)
Belochus – Franz Vitzthum (counter-tenor)
Arbaces / Mars – Markus Flaig (bass)
Atrax – Sören Richter (tenor)
Belesus – Felix Schwandtke (bass)
Misius / Cupido – Kirline Cirule (soprano)
Saropes – Philipp Nicklaus (tenor)
United Continuo Ensemble/Jörg Meder
rec. live Wilhelma-theater, Stuttgart, Germany, 28 February, 1 March 2014. DDD
PAN CLASSICS PC10315 [3 CDs: 64:47 + 57:04 + 42:55]
First performed at the Leipzig Opera in 1698, this unusual recording thus has nothing to do with Byron’s play but is acclaimed in the notes rather as a “missing link” in the history of German opera. It daringly tells the story of the love-life of the louche and feckless Assyrian king Sardanapalus, making concessions to contemporary morality by toning down his predilection for amorous encounters with persons of either sex but retains his attachment to cross-dressing in order to exploit it for comic purposes. He neglects his royal duties in pursuit of sating his appetites until hopelessly surrounded by enemies then despairs by committing himself, his concubines and his possessions to a funeral pyre.
As with Lully working a generation earlier in the court of Louis XIV, the pretext for the opera still lies in doing homage to the virtues of the beneficent ruler – in this case, Prince Georg Friedrich.
I approached this rarity in a spirit of experimentation but cannot in all honesty say that anything much about it excites me. Unfortunately, it proceeded to conform to some of my worst prejudices concerning justly neglected Baroque works and I am not inclined to return to it in a hurry. It may be that my less than fluent German restricts me from a full appreciation of what I am assured is Boxberg’s own witty libretto, as no translations of the libretto are provided but in terms of the music and singing I hear little of note. Although recorded live, the audience response is muted beyond the very occasional low chuckle; I wonder if they were as bored watching it as I am listening to it. Even a potentially dramatic event such as the Sardanapalus’s incineration results in no change in the musical temperature; everything just trots along imperturbably; Götterdämmerung it ain't.
Ironically, the section I enjoyed most was the instrumental which concludes the whole opera, “Entrée der Dames und Cavalliers” – and not just because it meant that the opera was over. Indeed the orchestral set-pieces, beginning with the stately tune of the overture sandwiching a lilting three-quarter-time passage and the ballets punctuating the action, are the best things in it – and the ballets are interpolated music by two other composers, Nicola Matteis d. Jüngere and Gregori Lambrani.
The small band consists of charmingly raucous oboes, a gruff bassoon, blaring trumpets and thrumming baroque guitars and theorbos; many sprightly jolly tunes alternate with plaintive, soulful laments accompanied by a flute taking an almost vocal role (track 10).
Vocally, these are not the most lustrous voices here; indeed most are distinctly provincial, with some acidic sopranos and throttled tenors. There is no chorus except when the soloists sing in concert, and of those no one singer has a major voice. Jan Kobow has a slight, agile, rather cloudy tenor and makes a creditable job of his arias such as the love song which opens Act III. A weedy, throaty tenor Saropes gives little pleasure but basses Felix Schwandtke as Belesus and Markus Flaig as Arbaces/Mars have neat, pleasant voices. Rinnat Moriah’s soprano is squally and Theodora Baka’s mezzo horribly squawky. We hear a nice counter-tenor in Franz Vitzthum, whose smooth and agile tone is a welcome improvement on too many of his co-singers.
We are told that all of Boxberg’s other works have been lost and the survival of this one was a matter of pure chance when a member of the Leipzig opera made a journey to Ansbach where a copy of the score was preserved. I supposed we should be grateful but try as I might I cannot find much here to engage my modern ears.