Magnificent music and drama - A conversation with René Jacobs about Telemann’s opera “Orpheus”
Conductor René Jacobs has a special affinity for Georg Philipp Telemann’s opera “Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe oder Orpheus”. In an interview he talks about his passion, and how he has approached the missing passages in the surviving sources.
27 years ago you made your debut at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin conducting Telemann’s “Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe or Orpheus”, and also released a CD recording of this in 1998 on the Harmonia Mundi label. What led you, after more than two decades, to return to this musical drama of 1726?
My great love for this piece and its uniqueness. Not only the three languages and how they are used dramaturgically, but also the fact that the myth, as with Ovid and Virgil, is narrated to the bloody end; the invention of the character of Orasia – this “literary sister” of Armida (Wolfgang Hirschmann) – as the leader of the Bacchantes, and the tragico fine which she triggers. Since 1998 I have learned so much from the critical new edition published by Bärenreiter that I became more and more interested in revisiting the opera anew.
For the forthcoming series of concert performances in European concert halls, you have used the critical new edition edited by Wolfgang Hirschmann and Ulf Grapenthin published by Bärenreiter in 2011; the publisher has now specially produced the orchestral parts for this. This edition contains the fragmentary version of the opera which survives in the sources. Right at the beginning the overture is missing. Which instrumental introduction have you now chosen?
The Overture to Telemann’s “Miriways” of 1728 is in F major. That is also the key of the final chorus of the opera Orpheus “Ach lebe, Königin, ach lebe!”, sung in tears by Orasia’s retinue. She, rather than Eurydike, is the main female character in this opera.
The wind scoring in the “Miriways” overture and in the rest of the opera is more opulent and differentiated than that in Telemann’s “Orpheus”. But to engage extra performers just for an overture – two corni da caccia and two oboes – is in some respects rather extravagant. Are you allowing these musicians the rest of the evening off after the first five minutes, or do you give them another chance to show off their brilliant playing in the course of your version?
The “Miriways” overture is indeed composed for two oboes and two horns. The minimal “historic” woodwind scoring in “Orpheus”, with one oboe and a recorder, presumably played by the same musician back then, was without doubt a compromise. We have engaged two oboists, the first of whom also plays recorder, but the horns really are a luxury. I found that this dramatic and musically magnificent opera deserves a “great” overture. The horn players shouldn’t spend too long away from the pit, because in my performance version they dominate the orchestral colours of the opera finale.
The frenzied Bacchantes storm onto the stage – our performances won’t be purely concert performances, but semi-staged – to “powerful music” with horns from Georg Caspar Schürmann’s opera “Ludovicus Pius” (1725), and a section of this aggressive music returns when the women tear Orpheus’s body into pieces (recitative no. 83). In the final chorus the horns play in the refrain (I. 1-16) after they have atmospherically introduced it with a “Sinfonie en Sarabande”, a kind of funeral march from “Miriways”.
Two further important missing passages in Telemann’s score have to be added – the Air “L’amour plaît malgré ses peines” which breaks off after nine measures, and the following recitative between Orpheus and his companion Eurimedes which ends Act I. The music at the beginning of Act II, with a recitative by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and his following aria “Zu den Waffen!” has also not survived. What musical-dramaturgical solutions have you found for these?
“L’amour plaît malgré ses peines” and the preceding recitative (Ismene, Orasia) were cut, despite my addition of the Air. For the concerts, a few shortenings and cuts were unavoidable; two intervals are out of the question at the moment because of corona. The recitative between Orpheus and his close friend Eurimedes is dramatically extremely important and was also intended as the conclusion of the first act: a new composition setting the complete text in Telemann’s style is definitely needed. I composed the first half of the recitative as a recitativo semplice and the second half, in which Eurimedes encourages his friend to descend into the underworld in order to placate Pluto with his “mellifluous song” and his “strings of sweet sound”, as a recitativo accompagnato. I have the second act begin with a “fiendish” Sinfonia from Maurice Green’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” (1730). There it opens the setting of a very appropriate text, as regards theme and emotional content: “But when thro’ all th’infernal bounds, sad Orpheus sought his consort lost …”. And in my version, Pluto’s monologue, composed later, is also a recitativo semplice which continues with the words “stellt der Vermessne sich in meinen Grenzen ein” as an accompagnato, where I borrow the harmonic progression from Green’s introduction – Orpheus’s passage into the underworld. The aria “Zu den Waffen” was undoubtedly not a great heroic aria, but an arietta in da capo form (middle section: “Lasse nicht ab, bis ihn gefunden” with a contrasting dactylic verse metre), where the da capo is repeated by the chorus – and this repetition is not missing.
Of Georg Philipp Telemann’s long-underappreciated stage works, many have been recorded on CD in the recent past, and there are even two recordings of “Miriways”. Only the Singspiel “Die Last-Tragende Liebe or Emma und Eginhard”, regarded as his opus magnus by many admirers of the composer, which you also conducted in 2015 at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, has not been recorded to date. Might we hope that you will also return to this opera for a second time and delight us with a first recording, which everyone would take with them to their desert island?
I would very much like to hope so! I am just waiting for better times for the recording industry, and someone to sponsor Telemann!
The interview was conducted by Ulrich Etscheit