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American Record Guide: (09-10/2020) 
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Reviewer: Ralph Locke

Telemann ran the Hamburg opera house in the 1720s 30s, where he kept many Handel operas in the repertory. He wrote 35 or so operas himself for Hamburg and other cities, most of them now lost. Of the 8 surviving ones, the best known is the light-hearted Pimpinone (Mar/Apr 1991; Sept/Oct 1996). Since 1967 the critical edition of Telemann's complete works has published the others, including the one recorded here: Miriways (1728). The world premiere recording of this fascinating work, made at stage performances in 2012, was hailed here by John Barker (Sept/Oct 2014). The present recording, just as fine yet also quite different, preserves a single 2017 unstaged performance in Hamburg's renowned 2000 seat Laeiszhalle (built in 1908). During the Baroque era, most exotic works used librettos telling of events (real or legendary) from the distant past (think of Handel's Giulio Cesare). Miriways, a rare exception, is set in Telemann's own way. I'd call it a "newspaper headlines opera", like such attention getting works from the past few decades as John Adams's Nixon in China and Mason Bates's Revolution of Steve Jobs.


Telemann and his librettist Johann Samuel Müller built their opera around events that had taken place a mere six years earlier in what are now Afghanistan and Persia. The main figure is Miriways, a highly fictionalized version of the Afghani emir known to history as Mahmud Hotak. The librettist (apparently misled by an unreliable German language biography of Mahmud) gave him the name of Mahmud's father, Mirwais Hotak. The confusion is understandable, because Mirwais (the father) had in 1709 led a revolution of Afghanis against the Persian forces that controlled Kandahar. In 1722 Afghan troops repeated the process on grander scale, putting Mahmud (the son) on the throne of Persia in Isfahan for three years. The German biography of the son (Mahmud) dubbed him "the Persian Cromwell", creating a parallel with the general whose forces, in the English Civil War, overthrew a repressive aristocratic regime. The opera's complex plot did not allude to (relatively) recent events so concretely, but it did turn the Afghani usurper of the Persian throne into a benevolent Enlightenment style ruler, who forgives his former foes and so on. The plot was well summari-zed in John Barker's review. It involves elements typical of Italian libretti of the day, such as two couples, where the woman and man are kept apart by complex circumstances plus an evil schemer (Zemir, a Persian prince) who wants one of the women for himself.

Though the work is labeled a singspiel, it uses secco recitative rather than spoken dialog. The usual string of arias is relieved by one duet, a few short choruses, a march "in Persian style", and several other orchestral movements. There were originally also some dances and a divertissement style "entry" for a group of drunken people, but the music for all of these is lost. The booklet has the libretto in German and English. The translation is full of typos. ("Borw" turns out to be "brow".) Worse, the booklet lacks a synopsis. An essay summarizes the historical and literary background and explains what the costumes and sets may have been like, but barely discusses the music. So I'll tell you: the music is a delight, often resembling, in style, appeal, and high craftmanship, what we find in Handel's operas and oratorios. At first, because the recitatives are in German, I was reminded of Bach's Passion settings. But I eventually got into the spirit and enjoyed the exchanges among the various characters and their quite varied emotions and reactions. Telemann authority Steven Zohn, in an informative review of the published score (in the music library journal Notes), has observed that the scoring is less colorful than in some of Telemann's Hamburg operas (fewer arias with a wind obbligato; only one accompanied recitative). Still, he notes, a chorus of Persians opens with a delightful horn duet, and a sleep aria for Nisibis is accompanied by "muted first violins and oboes d'amore with pizzicato strings". He points to several numbers that "suggest the exotic locale through repetitions of melodic and rhythmic figures, drone basses, and dissonant harmonies"—which Telemann picked up in trips to Eastern Europe and that recur in many of his purely instrumental works, too (sometimes labeled "Polish"). I found the performance, by a renowned Berlin early music orchestra, vivid and enchanting. Labadie makes a point of introducing distinct contrasts of pace in, say, the middle of the A section of an aria. We are far here from the bad old tradition of doing Baroque music metronomically. He adds some percussion (such as wooden sticks quickly hitting each other) in Miriways's first aria. And he takes the above mentioned chorus so quickly that the horn players have to scamper. This is not "playing it safe"; I would instead describe it as "playing a work back to life".

Some of the vocal soloists are heavenly: the sopranos Robin Johannsen as the oddly named Prince Sophi (the rightful claimant to the Persian throne, traveling in disguise), Sophie Karthäuser as Bemira (whom Sophi loves and who longs for him as well), Lydia Teuscher as the young widow Nisibis (in love with Prince Murzah, who is from the land of the Tatars), and Anett Fritsch as the self serving Prince Zemir (who competes with Murzah for the love of Nisibis). I flipped for Johannsen's Marzelline in the René Jacobs recording of Beethoven's Leonore (M/A 2020). She lives up to my expectations, not least in the marvelously embellished dacapo of Prince Sophi's aria 'Viel lieber zu erblassen'. I am also taken with Fritsch, especially for her ability to manage the tricky syncopations of Prince Zemir's Act 2 aria, 'Die Dankbarkeit wird sich verpflichten'. Some of the others in the cast are merely very capable and controlled, which already puts this recording far above the wobble impaired level one hears in many standard repertory performances and recordings nowadays. Several of the singers are, like the horn players, pressed by Labadie's lively tempos (especially in coloratura passages), but the effect is generally more exciting than annoying.
And, marvel of marvels, there is no applause except at the ends of acts. I do wish that Andre Morsch and Michael Nagy (as Murzah) had fuller low notes. Conrad L Osborne, in his book Opera As Opera: The State of the Art (reviewed here N/D 2018), rightly decries "the disappearing low end" in operatic singing. I should add that it's not just a question of vocal technique: nowadays singers often choose roles that lie a trifle low for them, perhaps so they won't come to grief on the role's highest notes. But this can leave them sounding thin and unsupported on the lowest ones. I have sampled the previous recording and see why Mr Barker liked it so much. It is smartly and rather straightforwardly conducted by Michi Gaigg. (I shall look for other projects involving her!) As so often in recordings of complete operas, especially when made at a performance rather than under studio conditions, some moments are stronger in one recording than the other. The Gaigg is more complete and has a more comprehensive booklet essay. Both have the libretto and a good English translation. Either recording will satisfy the most demanding fan of Baroque music and will engage the opera lover looking for something different. Our index also will lead you to an excellent recording of Telemann's Orpheus (conducted by René Jacobs: S/O 2003); a version of Der Neumodische Liebhaber Damon (M/A 1998); and several recordings of Don Quixotte.


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