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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Anton SCHWEITZER (1735-1787)

libretto by Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813)
Alceste: Ursula Targler;
Parthenia: Syvlia Koke;
Admetus: Christian Voigt;
Hercules: Christophe Wendel
Erfurt Theatre Opera Chorus
Erfurt Philharmonic Orchestra/Stephen E.Wehr
Rec. Erfurt, May 2001 DDD
MARCO POLO 8.225261-62 [61.09+73.04]


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There can be little doubting the fact that the story of Alceste or Alcestis, as found in Greek mythology, was one of the most popular stories used in opera in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the present climate where obscure and sometimes rather mediocre late baroque and classical operas and Singspiels are being dug out it was inevitable that another Alceste would emerge. This present work is a singspiel, a form much in popularity in Germany, particularly Leipzig and Salzburg in the 1770s and 1780s. It was much graced by Mozart with pieces like ‘Il Seraglio’ but its popularity spread to Mannheim, Dresden, Hamburg and even to Prague.

But what of Schweitzer and Wieland. They are given equal weight in the CD booklet and essay so that at first I thought, as I was ignorant of their existences, they were a kind Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their biographies are given in the aforementioned notes. It seems that in fact they hardly worked together at all. So, with the exception of two smaller projects, this work is pretty well a ‘one-off’. Wieland was much the more famous. As he admired Schweitzer’s music so much and regarded the rendition of his text as of paramount importance we must see this work as an important phase in the development of German theatre and opera. In any case, its immediate success and the fact that it was performed all over Germany lead to a veritable land-slide of artists willing to move on to the singspiel bandwagon. With this as background Marco Polo have performed a great service in giving us the opportunity to get to know this important piece.

But first the famous and heart-rending plot. Alceste is married to Admetus who falls ill, near to death. The opera opens at this point with a searching overture and moving opening scene. Alcestis asks the Gods to spare him, but this is agreed only on the grounds that someone else dies in his place. No substitute can be found, not even his elderly parents, so Alceste decides to offer herself despite the protestations of her sister Parthenia. Hence the exacting and thrilling aria in Act 1 ‘Ihr Götter de Holle (You gods of Hades). Alceste weakens so Admetus is cured and returns from his bed to find his wife almost dead. He learns of her sacrifice and immediately says that life without her is no life at all. This leads to Alcestis’s death scene and her moving aria ‘Weine nicht, du meines Herzens Abgott’ (Weep not, idol of my heart). Admetus grieves, and a new character, Hercules, descends and promises to bring back Alceste as her actions and Admetus’ are honourable. Two glorious arias punctuate this section: Parthenia’s ‘Er flucht dem Tagesleit’ in a gloriously virtuoso style using the coloratura register and Hercules’ ‘Es ist beschlossen’, his musical highpoint.

Needless to say all works out happily and the music is at its most inspired in these final pages.

Of the two creators of this singspiel Wieland was the most famous and probably the most important. Dr. Egon Freitag in the notes tells us that he was "a novelist, translator, publisher, editor and journalist" and produced "the first important German translation of Shakespeare". Dr. Hele Geyer in her essay on the singspiel itself tells us that Goethe saw the piece and apparently left the performance "as one would move away from an out of tune zither". Despite his comments, its first performance on 28th May 1773 was a success which "stimulated Wieland to establish a national theatre (spoken and opera) as a model". She analyses the music in some detail pointing out Schweitzer’s especially interesting use of keys adding to the drama, and which helped to create what, for the time, was " a very modern sense of realism", with its "declamatory gestures and ‘furore’ types of aria".

In addition there is also a useful and detailed essay by Reinhard Hasenfus on the full background and story of Alceste as found in mythology. A synopsis of each scene is given but the full text is available in German only. There are also biographies of the performers.

Thinking of the performers and overall direction of the work does however create a rather mixed reaction at least from this writer. First the negatives.

Curiously the chorus have very little to do. There is the temple scene in Act IV when they pray to the gods for Alceste’s return and they briefly appear in the Finale. I find them rather top heavy and recessed. The sopranos are too full of vibrato. Alceste herself, Ursula Targler, seems mis-cast. Surely she is really a mezzo in a soprano role. She seems to push up at her high register to such an extent that it becomes quite an irritant especially in the big florid arias. Christian Voigt is too ponderous in the Bachian style seco-recitatives, and the orchestra seems at times to be under-rehearsed.

Now some positives. Sylvia Koke is light and airy as Parthenia but also full of pathos especially in the wonderful moment in Act IV (Allmacht’ge Götter! Was seh ich?" when Alceste returns to life and is reveal by Hercules. He is ideally cast in the bass Christoph Johannes Wendel with just the right amount of authority and weight.

The fact remains however that this two disc set is probably only for those with a particular penchant for opera of the classical period or in German theatre. Nevertheless it is a fascinating document of a rather overlooked genre in a little known category and at the very least gives us a clearer view of where Mozart was coming from and how he added a greater dimension to the genre.

Gary Higginson

Bill Kenny has also listened to this recording

Naxos/Marco Polo are to be congratulated on the release of this important rarity. Sometimes acknowledged as the one composer who forged the link between the Baroque and Classical periods in German music, Anton Schweitzer is also often credited (jointly with the poet/librettist Christoph Martin Wieland with whom he collaborated on Alceste) with the definition of truly ‘German’ opera: at least in the Singspiel form adopted by Mozart in Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte and later by Beethoven in Fidelio. This Schweitzer/Wieland Alceste, first performed in 1772, was a huge success in Weimar and beyond. It came to be much admired by Goethe who nobly changed his mind about his first impressions of it once he had met Wieland and grasped the true significance of the work. This Alceste generated a whole new German national operatic style, clearly different from the French and Italian styles that prevailed formerly.

The detailed booklet essays on Wieland are by Dr. Egon Freitag of the Goethe National Museum and on the opera and its joint authors by Professor Dr. Helen Geyer. They offer a wealth of information on the significance of the work and the artistic statures of the composer and librettist. Professor Geyer’s essay also discusses in detail the harmonic and structural innovations that Schweitzer uses in the music. A synopsis of the plot, a scene by scene account of the action and the German libretto are also included.

The plot of the work is relatively simple: Alcestis, wife of Admetus, a King of Thessaly who was formerly one of Jason’s Argonauts, is allowed to replace her husband when he is about to die. She makes this sacrifice willingly and though Admetus lives on he is desolated by his loss. Since Admetus had no part in influencing his wife’s decision and had valiantly attempted to dissuade her from making it, the demi-god Hercules judges him to have acted virtuously and returns Alcestis from Hades. This version of the story (simpler than Lully’s 1674 version or Gluck’s of 1767) requires only four principal characters and chorus.

The music is interesting rather than thrilling, due in part to the limitations of the singers all of whom are representative of a good provincial opera company rather than a national one. There is a good deal of recitative, naturally enough, but the work also has a number of appealing arias, pretty duets and some agreeable chorus work.

In her essay, Professor Geyer rightly identifies Alcestis’s aria "Ihr Götter der Hölle" (CD1 track 4) for its dramatic significance and harmonic innovation. However it is Parthenia, Alcestis’s sister, who has the highlight of the whole piece in "O! der ist nicht vom Schicksal ganz verlassen" (CD 2 track 7.) The orchestral sound is very good and Stephan E. Wehr guides the work along with an assured hand. It is clear that he cares deeply about this significant work and that fact alone means that devotees of opera from this period will not be disappointed by this landmark performance.

Bill Kenny


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