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GRAMOPHONE (04/2021)
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Reviewer: David Vickers

Between 1706 and 1709 Christoph Graupner composed five operas for Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt opera. Antiochus und Stratonica (1708) is one of only two for which the music survives. Plans to stage it at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2009 were abandoned but, happily, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs got a second chance to perform it in concerts at Oldenburg and Bremen (where this was recorded in January 2020). Musicological editor Jörg Jacobi summarises that the text performed falls somewhere between Graupner’s very long original score and a revival that was cut considerably by Keiser. At a whisker under four hours’ running time, nobody is likely to feel shortchanged – and a comparison with the original 1708 printed wordbook suggests that only one aria (in Act 2 scene 2) has been omitted.

The macaronic libretto by Barthold Feind, also titled L’amore ammalato, has aria texts sung in German and Italian, and French-style entrées. Set in Damascus, the sorceress Mirtenia calls upon the dark arts to compel the royal treasurer Demetrius to fall in love with her – regardless of the fact he is married to Ellenia (after several bouts of bickering among the love triangle, he is eventually restored to his senses). Meanwhile, the king’s only son Antiochus falls deeply in love with his beautiful new stepmother Stratonica, and nearly dies from misery. All is put right (in both plots) by the timely intervention of the Macedonian doctor Erasistratus, who diagnoses that the prince can only be cured by death or love. The king Seleucus relinquishes Stratonica to Antiochus, and the doctor (now promoted to the rank of prince) is betrothed to Mirtenia – hence paving the way for Demetrius to be reunited with Ellenia. There is blatant irony throughout proceedings, and outright comedy from the servant Negrodorus, whose interruptions include telling the audience that this opera needs a comic Harlequin like him so it can be a boxoffice hit (Graupner’s entirely serious operas the previous season had been flops).

O’Dette and Stubbs lead an entertaining performance that unveils a plethora of concise arias packed with clever instrumentations. They cannily take music from Graupner’s orchestral suites to reconstruct several missing ballets that put the limelight firmly on the marvellous playing of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, fielding about 30 players including a strong contingent of woodwinds and an arsenal of continuo players. Even by the BEMF’s own high standards, this is nothing short of revelatory both in terms of its superb musicianship and its advocacy of hitherto neglected yet enormously enjoyable repertoire.

Sunhae Ims waspish directness is well suited to the gloating and meddlesome Mirtenia, but there is also petulant wittiness in successive attempts to get her hooks into Demetrius. The longsuffering Ellenia is sung by Sherezade Panthaki with refined pathos or biting vengefulness as her predicaments require. Hana Blaíkovás lyrical Stratonica is spot on whether extrovert brilliance, exquisite lamentation at the pain of forbidden love, or grief; her farewell to the fading Antiochus is a lullaby of beautiful simplicity (Schlaffe sanfft, erblasste Seele). The lovesick Antiochus is sung compassionately by Christian Immler; he pensively confides in a caged bird that he longs for an end to his suffering in Ja, hochgekränckter Geist, in which pizzicato strings and recorders illustrate a funeral bell knolling while a rapturous viola represents the flight of the freed bird. Seleucus is sung with dignity and intelligence by Harry van der Kamp. Aaron Sheehans silver-tongued singing conveys the weak-minded Demetriuss vacillation between the enchantress and his wife. Negrodorus is acted mischievously by Jan Kobow, and Jesse Blumberg’s brawny baritone saves the day as the doctor Erasistratus.

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