Wednesday 2 June 2021

Innovative drama: Georg Benda's melodrama Medea in its rarely-performed revised version

Benda Medea; Katharina Thalbach, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; Coviello Classics

Benda Medea; Katharina Thalbach, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; Coviello Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Georg Benda's innovative melodrama given in the first recording of the composer's signficantly revised version

The idea of combining spoken text and music, so that the music heightens the spoken drama, became popular in the 18th century. The concept would have quite a long life both in 18th and 19th century theatre and opera. However, few theatres nowadays could afford the luxury of having a full orchestra in the pit for a play, and when was the last time you hear Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream complete with the melodrama. Often, it is this aspect of theatre and opera which is lost, we very rarely hear melodramas except for key ones such as those in operas by Mozart and Beethoven, whilst Schubert wrote a significant amount of melodrama, yet this is rarely performed. 
It was the success of Georg Benda's melodramas which showed Mozart how powerful they could be. Benda's use of the melodrama was not in the context of a play or an opera, but was as melodrama in its own right, a work created for just speaker and orchestra. This was a genre which seems to have sprung from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but which developed a strong following in German-speaking countries.

Marcus Bosch and Cappella Aquileia with narrator Katharina Thalbach give us chance to explore Georg Benda's best-known melodrama, Medea, on Coviello Classics, and what is particularly important about this recording is that they perform Benda's significantly revised 1784 version rather than the 1775 original.

Benda was from a family of Bohemian (Czech) musicians and by 1750 was court director of music in Gotha where opportunities were patchy. In 1765 his only opera seria was premiered, but in 1767 the cultured Duchess who had supported his efforts died, the theatre players were reduced and the Italian singers paid off. But in 1774 a new theatre company arrived, refugees from Weimar where there had been a disastrous fire at the palace theatre. This company had had success in Weimar with melodramas, in German, inspired by Rousseau, so it is not surprising that Benda would write a group of melodramas for the company. 

The text for Medea was written by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, the Gotha court archivist who was also a well-known playwright. What he presents is not a dramatic play, but an examination of Medea's inner conflicts, and the piece starts quite late in the action. 

For a work like a full-scale melodrama the music needs to follow and heighten the spoken text, which means that the standard closed forms of opera are not suitable. In Medea, Benda takes the plunge and abandons and concept of aria, ensemble, chorus or recitative altogether, instead the music is through-composed to follow the text in a way which would not happen in opera until the mid-19th century. When writing about Benda's Medea, Mozart would use the idea of accompanied recitative to convey to his father the precise effect of the piece, and it is worth quoting his letter at length: 

"really - nothing has ever been so surprising to me! - because, I always imagined that something like that would not make any effect! - you know that it is not sung, but spoken - and the music is like an obligatory recitative - sometimes people speak under the music, which then has the most wonderful effect; - what I saw was Medea of Benda - he made another one, Ariadne on Naxos, both of them truly - excellent; you know that Benda was alwards my favourite among the Lutheran directors of muisc; I love these two works so much that I carry them with me"
(Mozart writing in 1778 after hearing Benda's Medea performed in Mannheim).

In 1784, the composer returned to Medea and revised the music. This was a thorough-going revision, barely a bar is untouched, the instrumentation is altered, the inner parts made more lively and the music itself tightened and condensed. In the manuscript of this version Benda writes: 

"Medea with improved music ... I wish I had brought her to the theatre under this shape as soon as she was born". 

This version was premiered in Mannheim in 1784, but has remained largely unknown (all previous modern editions of the work and all recordings are based on the 1775 version).

The work must have had a very strong, visceral effect on its original listeners and I would be interested to know how German speakers find the genre today. But for a non-German speaker, the communication is less direct, so that you must follow the text from the printed copy or simply take a broad brush approach to what is happening. And listening to this, I did rather wish that we could have had the work two ways, with and without text. It would be very interesting to hear Benda's imaginative music on its own. 

This is not strictly a monodrama as there are multiple characters so what we have is effectively a hybrid between play and opera. The libretto specifies Medea, her sons, their housekeeper, Jason, Creusa and an entourage, here all played by Katharina Thalbach but presumably originally presented by members of the theatre company. I would like to know more about this type of melodrama which carries into the 19th century and it is a shame that that the majority of the text of Schubert's 1820 melodrama Die Zauberharfe, has been lost.

How you react to this work will depend very much on how you react to Katharina Thalbach's performance. She is a distinguished German actor and her awards include a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 German Acting Awards. Her approach to Gotter's text is appropriately dramatic and not at all naturalistic. She declaims wonderfully, with a superb relish for Gotter's language, whilst giving each character a particular sound. It is highly vivid and engrossing, though I suspect a long way from the approach an classically trained English-speaking actor might take.

Benda's melodramas are not that common on disc so this new recording, vividly performed by Thalbach, Bosch and Cappella Aquileia is a great opportunity to experience Medea in its final form. Melodrama does require some degree of recalibration of what we expect from a performance, with the predominance of spoken text, but the way Benda makes music and text intermesh is a truly wonderful effect.

Georg Benda (1722-1795) - Medea (1775/1784) [44:15]
Katharina Thalbach (narrator)
Cappella Aquileia
Marcus Bosch (conductor)
Recorded at the Congress Centrum Heidenheim, 26-27 October 2018

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