Theatrically rich with varied chorus and dance scenes - Telemann’s opera for Hamburg “Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe oder Orpheus”
Georg Philipp Telemann’s Orpheus opera for the Gänsemarkttheater in Hamburg stands apart from typical works of its time in its opulence. Unfortunately the surviving sources are incomplete. But now, a basis for effective performances is provided by the volume from the Telemann Selected Edition published by Bärenreiter.
Amongst Telemann’s surviving Hamburg stage works, “Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe oder Orpheus” (TVWV 21:18) can be regarded as the most unusual, and at the same time the most problematic in its surviving form. Of all the operas produced at the Theater am Gänsemarkt, it was not only unusual but also unique in that the libretto contains a combination of German, Italian and French; the first known performance of the opera as a “concert” on 9 March 1726, staged by the famous singer Margaretha Susanna Kayser (1690–1775), was peculiar and requires further explanation. “Orpheus” was originally conceived as a typical repertoire opera with different set designs, rich action on stage and varied chorus and dance scenes. It is unclear why the piece was only performed as a concert in 1726. But one-off performances of this type presented an opportunity for the opera house to earn some income, despite the theatres being closed during Lent when opera performances were forbidden in Hamburg.
The libretto of the opera, which may have been written by Telemann himself, is based on the tragédie en musique “Orphée” by Michael Du Boulay (Paris 1690, music by Louis and Jean-Louis Lully), but for the Italian arias and French airs it uses texts from several other Italian and French operas, including famous works such as “Armide”, “Thesée” and “Amadis” by Pierre Quinault and Jean-Baptiste Lully, and “Rinaldo” by Aaron Hill, Giacomo Rossi and George Frideric Handel. “Orpheus” offers the rare opportunity of comparing Telemann’s arias with settings of the same texts by Handel and Lully!
The music is preserved in a source of lesser importance for Telemann’s work, the music collection of Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn (1677–1754) in Schloss Wiesentheid (Mainfranken). But this source presents considerable problems from an editorial perspective. The contemporary copy of the score made by two unknown copyists from the time of the opera’s composition was most probably based on Telemann’s autograph, however it contains a version of the piece which differs considerably from the surviving printed libretti, and clearly documents an early version of the opera. In a few passages the surviving recitatives are longer than the matching text in the libretto or do not fit with the music, so that it is still unclear which original text Telemann set (as was Telemann’s practice in many of his own scores, the recitatives are indeed untexted, and have to be provided with text taken from the libretto).
In addition to this, the copy of the opera survives in an incomplete form; it was copied from a source which was itself incomplete (possibly the autograph, in which a few folios are missing). This has the consequence that towards the end of Act II, the air “L’amour plaît malgré ses peines” breaks off after nine measures and the final scene of the act, a recitative between Orpheus and his companion Eurimedes is also missing, like the beginning of Act II with a recitative for Pluto, the God of the Underworld, and his following aria “Zu den Waffen!”. Any hope of rediscovering these missing sections in a second copy of the score preserved in Wiesentheid quickly evaporated, as the musical text there only copies the first copy again (but corrected in a few passages).
In its surviving form the opera begins with an aria in D minor for Orpheus’s opposite number, the sorceress Orasia (an Armida-like figure); but there is an assumption that, as in all Telemann’s other operas, an overture preceded the beginning of the plot, possibly in F major. We do not know.
The task of the historical-critical edition of the opera in the Telemann Edition published by Bärenreiter is to illustrate the fragmentary character of the surviving material, and not to obscure it through editorial interventions, as previous approaches have done. Of course the opera can, and must be completed and edited to enable modern performances to be given; but each and every interpreter should be able to distinguish between the surviving, that is original, sections and the added “modern” components. If the historical-critical edition can serve as an authoritative source for modern performances, its primary task will have been fulfilled.
Wolfgang Hirschmann is Professor of Historical Musicology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and Editorial Director of the Telemann Edition published by Bärenreiter-Verlag.
Anselm Feuerbach: Orpheus and Eurydice, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere