The name of Georg Philipp Telemann is one you may not have immediately associated with opera. However, from early in his career he had a lively interest in the genre. In 1701 he moved to Leipzig to begin his studies at the University but soon music won the upper hand. He became involved in performances at the Thomaskirche, and this resulted in regular commissions to compose music for the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche. In 1702 he took the helm of the Opernhaus auf dem Brühl which had been founded in 1692 by Nicolaus Adam Strungk who died in 1700. Telemann stated that he composed twenty operas for Leipzig, not only during his years there but also when he was employed in Sorau, Eisenach and Frankfurt. However, as things stand there is evidence of only five. We may conclude that the largest part of his oeuvre in this department has been lost. Unfortunately that is a feature of his opera output as a whole.
In 1721 he moved from Frankfurt to Hamburg to take up the position of Musikdirektor
. In Hamburg the Oper am Gänsemarkt was one of the city's main institutions. It was founded in 1678, being the very first opera house for the bourgeoisie in Germany. Just one year after his arrival he became the director of the Opera. Telemann composed a number of operas from his own pen, but there were also works by the likes of Handel and Keiser. Those from non-German composers were mostly adapted in that the recitatives were translated into German and the music - if necessary - adapted to the performing conditions in Hamburg. In his autobiography of 1740 Telemann claimed that he - in addition to the operas for Leipzig - had written 35 operas for Hamburg and several other stage works for the courts of Eisenach, Weissenfels and Bayreuth.
There is evidence of 29 operas in total; only nine have survived complete. Miriways
is one of them; it was first performed on 26 May 1728. The libretto is from the pen of Johann Samuel Müller who was known for his efforts on behalf of the German language and as a translator of writings of authors from classical antiquity. The opera is about the conflict between power and love, and about a hidden identity, loyalty and deceit. Nothing new there. However, the portrayed events are not situated in a setting from classical antiquity, but rather from the time of composition: Persia A.D. 1722. The name of the title character refers to Mir Wais, an Afghan tribal chieftain who was the instigator of several revolts which led to the liberation of the Afghan province of Kandahar from Persian rule after 1700. The libretto was inspired by a biography of Mir Wais which appeared in 1723. The interest in developments in that part of the world was partly due to Hamburg's commercial concerns but is also a token of the growing fascination for cultures outside Europe. That fascination was to become a major feature of European culture in later decades and finds its expression in, for instance, some of Mozart's operas.
The character of Miriways is historical but the story itself is partly invented. For instance, in the opera Miriways won the Persian throne in 1722 but according to modern scholarship it was his son who became King of Persia. In Telemann's work Miriways is the protector of Persia who offers the throne to Sophi, son of the deposed Shah upon condition that he marries a woman of Miriways' choice. Sophi refuses as he is in love with Bemira and is willing to give up the throne for her. At the end of the opera it is revealed that Miriways' choice is that same Bemira who is his daughter. Sophi wasn't aware of that and Miriways didn't know who Sophi was in love with. All's well that ends well but before the opera comes to a close Murzah, brother of Samischa — who has a relationship with Miriways — has to fight for his love for Nisibis against the competition of the Persian Prince Zemir. He has to save Nisibis and Samischa from a fire.
This opera is called a Singspiel
which is an indication that the whole text is in German. In this respect it differs from most Hamburg operas whose recitatives were in German but whose arias were mostly in Italian or French. The use of only one language results in a strong coherence with a fluent conversion from recitatives to arias. I have probably heard most of Telemann's extant operas and I consider Miriways one of his best. The arias are very well-written and Telemann characterises the various characters and situations quite effectively. To give just some examples: one of the highlights is the very first aria, 'Könnt' ich nur zu ihm noch sprechen', by Samischa. She expresses her feelings towards Miriways who wouldn't marry her because his father wanted him to marry someone else. That is eloquently illustrated in the orchestral score. The many short pauses depict the sighs mentioned in the text. When Zemir tries to win over Nisibis she answers in her aria 'Mein widriges Geschicke': "My contrary fate has left me one sole possession in misfortune: a free heart". The word "free" is emphasized by virtuosic and repeated coloratura. In 'Viel lieber zu erblassen' Sophi's firmness in his decision to give up the throne in favour of Bemira is reflected by the strong chords in the orchestra. He has another beautiful aria at the end of the second act, 'Nenn ein Herz doch unbeglücket'. Another highlight is the aria of Nisibis in the third act, 'Sein edles Herz'. Towards the end Miriways has a beautiful aria with an obbligato oboe part, 'Lass, mein Sohn, ach lass dir raten'.
This CPO set presents a live recording of staged performances in March 2012 in the theater of Magdeburg. Yes, we hear some stage noises and that can be quite annoying if you can't see a thing but here they are hardly disturbing and can mostly easily be connected to what one can read in the libretto. The advantage of a live recording is that the interaction between the protagonists is mostly rather good and that is certainly the case here. It is probably also inspires the interpreters to deliver a good performance. There are few reasons to complain here. Miriways, Sophi and Nisibis are the main roles, and these are also the best part of this production as far as the performances are concerned. Markus Volpert, Ulrike Hofbauer and Gabriele Hierdeis give good accounts of their respective roles. Miriways is not the brutal figure often taken on by oriental characters in later operas and Volpert's voice suits the way he is portrayed here. Hofbauer sings a male role and she does so beautifully but at times I felt that she could have sung with a little more bite. Hierdeis shows a good feeling for the ambivalent feelings of Nisibis: she loves Murzah but feels that she is in the debt of Zemir for the favours he seems to have done to her - or at least, that is what Zemir wants her to believe. He is a bit of a sneaky character but that doesn't fully come out. Most singers are also convincing from a stylistic point of view except Susanne Drexl and Julie Martin du Theil whose performances are damaged by an incessant and - especially in the case of the latter - wide vibrato. The recitatives are mostly taken with the right amount of rhythmic freedom; only, now and then, they are sung too strictly in time. L'Orfeo Barockorchester is simply outstanding: the colourful score which Telemann has created is impressively realised.
Small points of criticism notwithstanding, this is an excellent recording of one of Telemann's best works for the stage.
Johan van Veen
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