Tuesday 18 April 2023

Jephtas Gelübde: Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he was just 21, in a modern recording that enables us to begin to appreciate what we've been missing

Meyerbeer Jephtas Gelübde; Sönke Tams Freier, Andrea Chudak, Markus Elsäßer, Laurence Kalaidjian, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, Dario Salvi; Marco Polo

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 December 2021, reposted 18 April 2023

Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he had just turned twenty, now on Marco Polo label, in a performance that allows us to appreciate the imagination of the work

Giacomo Meyerbeer was talented young. Coming from a wealthy Berlin Jewish family, the Beers [see my review of Elaine Thornton's book, Giacomo Meyerbeer and his family: Between two worlds], he received great encouragement and support from his family. Having studied with Antonio Salieri and Carl Friedrich Zelter, at the age of 19 in 1810 he went for formal lessons with Abbé Vogler at Darmstadt, where fellow students included Carl Maria von Weber (who would become a friend and supporter), some five years older then Meyerbeer. The time with Vogler was important for Meyerbeer, not only did it provide him with strong musical grounding but on the death of his grandfather, Liebmann Meyer Wulff, Jacob Liebmann Beer started to sign himself Jacob Meyer Beer which would be later Italianised to Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Meyerbeer's opera Jephtas Gelübde was written in 1812 as a sort of graduation work following the completion of his study with Vogler. The work's premiere was the source of some friction between Vogler and Meyerbeer's parents and the result was a failure to present the first performance in Berlin where the young composer was well known. It was premiered in December 1812 at the Hofoper in Munich. There were three performances, and numbers were applauded, it was a reasonable start for a trainee composer. There would be a second German opera, Wirth und Gast premiered in Stuttgart in 1813, but Meyerbeer had bigger sights.

Whereas his friend Weber had to find paying positions once training with Vogler was over, Meyerbeer had the support and backing of his banking family and as a result could go to Italy for further training. Meyerbeer's Italian operas have all been recorded, notably by Opera Rara and Naxos, but the German operas have unaccountably escaped.  This first recording of Meyerbeer's Jephtas Gelübde was originally only available on the Naxos Music Library website (you need to be a subscriber), but has now been issued on the Marco Polo label, thus giving it sider currency. Dario Salvi conducts Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus with Sönke Tams Freier, Andrea Chudak, Markus Elsäßer, and Laurence Kalaidjian.

Before we consider the performance, it is worthwhile looking at a bit of background. In 1812 in Italy, Rossini was still busy writing one-act farse and his 1812 La pietra del paragone was his first full-length success with Tancredi coming in 1813. In Vienna, Beethoven's Fidelio had been performed in 1805 and 1806 and would not be revived again until 1814, and Meyerbeer had taken part in the premiere of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Like Meyerbeer, his friend Weber started early and by 1812 he had a number of operas under his belt including Silvana (1810) and Abu Hassan (1811), but it was only in 1821 with Der Freischütz would he achieve a reasonable success. German Romantic opera was just developing, Louis Spohr would write Faust in 1813, ETA Hoffmann's Aurora debuted in 1812 whilst his influential opera Undine would come in 1816.

So, when we listen to Jephtas Gelübde we have to beware of wanting it to be what it was not, and could never be. 

The plot is that of the Biblical Jephtha, though I have no idea whether Handel's oratorio was at all known in Germany at the time. There are also thematic links to Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide. The work is described as a serious opera with ballet, and non-singing moments are important, perhaps a significant thing for a composer who would later become known for French Grand Opera with its emphasis on the combination of music, visual and plastic arts. We are not just talking about dance, there are marches and clear ceremonial moments. And, of course, there is spoken dialogue, but each of the three act-finales is a substantial musical structure.

Stylistically the work has clear links to German opera of the period, and we can hear the folk-inspired music which would play a role in Weber's Der Freischütz. Interestingly, Meyerbeer does not seem to have been interested in the supernatural elements which would play a significant part in the development of German Romantic Opera, though some of Weber's dramatic writing for orchestra seems to be prefigured here. The choice of a Biblical story is to some extent rather curious, and some contemporaries regarded it as a staged oratorio, but listening to this performance it seems to be clearly an opera, and Meyerbeer's dramaturgy is dramatic.

If you consider Meyerbeer's later operas, then there are clear thematic links between them and this first opera. Jephtas Gelübde examines the conflict between personal love, devotion to country and demands of faith, and these all recur later. Add to that the fact that Jephtha is disowned by his country (because he is illegitimate, and he has to be recalled to serve as war leader), and you have the start of Meyerbeer's fascination with the outsider. Unlike many of his Jewish contemporaries, Meyerbeer never renounced Judaism (despite the severe problems of being a Jew in a country like Germany) and was always sensitive to 'Richesse' (anti-Semitism). His later works concern exiles (the Italian operas), religious minorities (Les Huguenots), the underclass and the conflict of religions (Le Prophète), and the racial ‘other’ (Vasco de Gama), all themes that we can begin to detect in Jephtas Gelübde.

The title role is an intriguing one, we don't hear much from him in Act One until, as part of the finale, he makes the vow. He is absent from Act Two until the finale when he encounters his daughter. The serious meat of the opera comes in the opening to Act Three where Jephta has a striking and substantial monologue, where we hear Meyerbeer's imaginative use of the orchestra in supporting and colouring and can hear elements of Weber's later use of the orchestra. Sönke Tams Freier makes a striking Jephta, clearly relishing the meatier moments whether the vow or the melancholic dark contemplation of the monologue.

The other satisfyingly dramatic role is Jephta's daughter, Sulima (Andrea Chudak). She is firm in her devotion to her father, and we hear her in arias in Acts One and Two that are so substantial as to be almost scenes in themselves. Both conceived on a large scale, they require from the soprano a combination of drama and virtuosity. This is something we encounter in Meyerbeer's later operas, the need for voices to have technical facility yet also to be able to develop dramatically. Chudak is, frankly, more of a soubrette, comfortable in the elaborate figurations she is less able to respond to the dramatic moments and her voice can harden under pressure

Sulima's beloved Asmavett is entirely ineffectual and Markus Elsäßer's lyric tenor voice is at home in the affecting music written for him. But the role is challenging too, with virtuoso moments and a tessitura that veers towards Rossini's writing for high tenor. Elsäßer works at the role manfully and is charming and lyrical but with moments where the writing of this impossible role is a clear challenge to him.

Unfortunately, the role of Abdon, Asmavett's rival in love for Sulima, is under-written. Laurence Kalaidjian is on strong form in his dramatic jealousy aria, but elsewhere the role is something of a cypher. The other smaller roles support well, notably Ziazan Horrocks-Hopayian as Sulima's confidante Tirza.

But the opera is rather more than just the solo moments, Meyerbeer calls it a serious opera with ballet, and the orchestra gets to show off in the dance moments, marches and other ceremonial music. Here Dario Salvi gets fine performances from the orchestra, and Meyerbeer's instrumental writing is striking and imaginative, for instance in the Act Three finale, the priests make their entry to the accompaniment of  harp and two guitars! And in each of the three finales, Meyerbeer creates complex, large-scale multi-sectional music. We have to remember that Rossini's imaginative leap in this area did not take place until slightly later (La donna del lago for instance, where Rossini makes striking ensemble demands, would not premier till 1819). Here the young Meyerbeer is bringing a symphonic ear to the writing of dramatic music, and it is in these three finales that the greatest meat and the greatest satisfaction appears. 

We still need a good studio recording of Jephtas Gelübde, but until such time as this happens, this recording shows us just what we are missing. The strong performance from Sönke Tams Freier in the title role is complemented by admirably game performances from Andrea Chudak and Markus Elsäßer, whilst Dario Salvi, the orchestra and chorus clearly relish the myriad challenges thrown at them.

Listening to the work, it is tempting to assign influences, echoes and pre-echoes. It certainly makes you wonder what Meyerbeer would have done if he had stayed in Germany. But the country offered few opportunities for German composers (as Weber's struggles showed), and so the move to Italy for further study was perhaps inevitable in a young composer who combined talent with significant family support.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) - Jephtas Gelübde (1812) [2:37:06]
Jephta - Sönke Tams Freier, Bass-baritone
Sulima - Andrea Chudak, Soprano
Tirza - Ziazan Horrocks-Hopayian, Mezzo-soprano
Asmavett - Markus Elsäßer, Tenor
Abdon - Laurence Kalaidjian, Baritone
A Tribal Leader - Ivaylo Yanev, Narrator
A Childhood Friend - Caroline Bruker, Narrator
Priest 1 / Messenger 1 - Nikolay Ivanov, Tenor
Priest 2 - Ivan Angelov, Tenor
Priest 3 - Orfey Petrov, Tenor
Priest 4 - Lyubomir Chernev, Bass
High Priest / Messenger 2 - Peter Petrov, Bass
Messenger 3 - Simeon Pilibosyan, Tenor
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus
Dario Salvi (conductor)
Recorded 1-4 July 2019, Bulgaria Hall, Sofia
MARCO POLO 8.225383-84 2CDs [79:57, 77:11] [Link Tree]

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