Saturday 9 September 2023

Operatic arias & overtures by Frederick the Great's court composer, Graun, in the opera house built by the king's sister

Carl Heinrich Graun
Carl Heinrich Graun

Carl Heinrich Graun: opera arias; Valer Sabadus, {oh!} Orkiestra, Martyna Pastuszka; Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival at the Margravial Opera House
Reviewed 8 September 2023

Exploring the entirety of Graun's career in Berlin, this evening of opera overtures and arias from the Romanian-German counter-tenor and Polish orchestra gave us a welcome chance to explore Graun's late-Baroque stye

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) had a long and fruitful artistic partnership with King Frederick the Great of Prussia. Graun wrote the music for Frederick's marriage celebrations in 1733, taking up a position at the then Crown Prince's rather limited court in 1735 (Frederick was kept on quite a short rein by his father, King Frederick William I).  Things blossomed in 1740 when Frederick became king and sought to re-established Italian opera in Berlin. Whilst Frederick sanctioned the use of 'singing capons', he preferred a more naturalistic stye and Graun's Berlin operas can been seen, with those of Jomelli, to be important experiments in the move towards Reform espoused by Gluck and Calzabigi.

It was thus apposite that the second event of this year's Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival on 8 September 2023 turned its focus to Graun with an evening of Graun's operatic music performed in the Margravial Opera House, (built by King Frederick the Great's sister, Wilhelmine) by Romanian-German counter-tenor Valer Sabadus with {oh!} Orkiestra directed from the violin by Martyna Pastuszka. We heard music from Rodelinda, premiered in 1741 before there was even a new opera house in Berlin, through Cesare e Cleopatra, which inaugurated the Berlin State Opera (Königliche Hofoper) in 1742, to Montezuma from 1755 with a libretto by Frederick the Great himself.

Graun: opera arias - Valer Sabadus, (oh!) Orkiestra, Martyna Pastuszka - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)
Graun: opera arias - Valer Sabadus, {oh!} Orkiestra, Martyna Pastuszka - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)

We began with the overture to Rodelinda, performed on the set for Handel's Flavio (which opened the festival), an intriguing combination as Handel set the same subject (albeit with a different libretto). The overture featured oboes, bassoon and horns, and began with galant excitement contrasting with sections for solo ensemble including an elaborate solo for Martyna Pastuszka, leading to a final section full of perky bounce. What I noticed from the four overtures in the concert (we later heard those to Cesare e Cleopatra, Adriano in Siria and Catone in Utica) was how Graun seemed to develop the overture, pushing the structure into new areas.

We then heard two arias from Rodelinda. 'Quest' o Dio lugubre aspetto' (about death oppressing but he bears the imprint of his love in his heart) began with vivid excitement with Sabadus' high, light voice providing plenty of accentuation. He had a fine way with the passage-work, but a tendency to over emphasis. For the middle section, agitation gave way to expressiveness with brilliant ornamentation in the Da Capo. Sabadus proved a very physical performer, as if a mere concert performance was not enough; face and body were in constant movement.

'Fonte ch'accresci l'onda' (O spring, swollen from the floods of my bitter tears) began with a gently expressive and rather striking accompagnato, followed by a Vivaldi-esque aria featuring long vocal lines over a throbbing accompaniment. For all Graun's intentions to naturalness, his music still had plenty of display moments and this aria in particular suited the elegant style of Sabadus' voice. During the evening, I found myself returning to thoughts of music by Graun's contemporaries both Vivaldi (as in this aria) and Hasse.

The overture to Cesare e Cleopatra came next. This opened in grand style with high-wire horn writing, alternating with lively fugal sections, the whole finishing with a perky triple-time movement with plenty of toe-tapping bounce. With its short alternating sections, strong character and toe-tapping moments, this felt like a crowd-pleaser.

We then moved to Artaserse, the first of five arias setting texts by Metastasio, a librettist much favoured by Graun for his mature operas. 'Sulle sponde del tobido lete' (on the shores of murky lethe he sees the ghost of his father) was a rather grand, Handelian style dance with Sabadus almost trenchant despite some bravura moments. 'Barbaro non comprendo' (barbarian, I don't know whether you are savage or foolish) from Adriano in Siria brought the first half to a close with plenty of fierce attack and bravura moments, though Sabadus approach to the vocal line was choppy at times. This was all over-the-top emotions followed by a quieter middle section.

The second half remained with Adirano in Siria with the overture; a briskly crisp yet elegant movement, with harpsichord cadenza at the repeat, followed by a delicate throbbing middle section before another toe-tapping dance to conclude.

We then heard two arias from Demofoonte. 'O piu tremar non voglio' (I shall no longer tremble) felt quite forward-looking and classical, with Sabadus having a very elegant way with the more runny sections of the vocal line. Then 'Misero pargoletto' (unhappy child) featured throbbing strings and an affecting Vivaldi-esque vocal line, elegantly and expressively performed by Sabadus.

The final overture of the evening was from Catone in Utica. This moved from grandly rhythmic with high horn writing, to a fast and rhythmic and finally an elegant triple-time dance, the music suggesting the early Classical writing of Graun's contemporary JC Bach.

Next came the aria 'Dov'e s'affretti' (Where is she, death should hasten to me my helpless feelings, cruel fate) from Alessandro e Poro, preceded by a strikingly dramatic accompagnato. The aria itself was given a compelling performance by Sabadus but was rather conventional. Here, and elsewhere, I was disturbed by Sabadus tendency to swoop for dramatic effect. For the final aria of the programme we turned to Montezuma which set a libretto by Frederick the Great, though the king wrote in French and it was then translated into Italian. 'Si, per la rea congiura' (Yes, traitor tremble) was fast and nervously busy. Sabadus really let rip here, pushing the top notes rather too much and letting emotions come to the fore, so we had some awkward register changes for dramatic effect.  It was, however, a striking piece and made you hope that a future festival might investigate further.

Graun: opera arias - Valer Sabadus, (oh!) Orkiestra, Martyna Pastuszka - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)
Graun: opera arias - Valer Sabadus, {oh!} Orkiestra, Martyna Pastuszka - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo: Clemens Manser)

The evening was being given as a live-stream by Bayerische Rundfunk (see Facebook) which was welcome exposure, but did mean that we had to listen to the continuity announcements and the whole made the evening feel somewhat stilted as a concert experience.

Sabadus and {oh!} Orkiestra gave us two encores. First, a ravishing account of 'Vedrò con mio diletto' from Vivaldi's Giustino (from 1724), and then 'Crude furie' from Handel's Serse (from 1738).

The concert video is still available on the BR Klassik website.

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