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Christian Ludwig BOXBERG (1670 - 1729): Sardanapalus, opera in 3 acts

Kirline Cirule (Cupido, Misius), Rinnat Moriah (Salomena, Venus), Cornelia Samuelis (Diana, Didonia), soprano; Theodora Baka (Agina, Juno), mezzo-soprano; Franz Vitzthum (Belochus), alto; Jan Kobow (Sardanapalus), Philipp Niklaus (Saropes), Sören Richter (Atrax), tenor; Markus Flaig (Arbaces, Mars), Felix Schwandtke (Belesus), bass
United Continuo Ensemble
Dir: Bernhard Epstein

rec: 28 Feb & 1 March 2014 (live), Stuttgart, Wilhelmatheater
Pan Classics - PC 10315 (3 CDs) (© 2014) (2.44'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Jan Freiheit, cello; Adrian Rovatkay, bassoon; Jörg Meder, violone; Johanna Seitz, harp; Axel Wolf, theorbo; Thor-Harald Johnsen, guitar; Petra Marianowski, haepsichord
with: Johanna Pommeranz, recorder; Markus Müller, Marie-Therese Reith, Daniela Endmann, oboe; Patrick Henrichs, Pavel Janecek, Marc Lentz, Nicolas Ousseni, trumpet; Lina Tur Bonet, Mirjam Haupt, violin; Annegret Meder, viola; Markus Bernhard, timpani

When the genre of opera emerged in Italy around 1600 it was soon embraced in most European countries, except England. In Germany Italian operas were performed in theatres which were part of aristocratic courts. In 1678 the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg opened, which was the first public opera house in Germany. Unfortunately very little of the repertoire from the early stages in the opera's history has been preserved. Recently some attention has been given to the opera in Leipzig which was founded in 1693 by Nicolaus Adam Strungk, who had been Musikdirektor of Hamburg from 1679 to 1682 and composed several works for the theatre. He did so again in Leipzig. The theatre opened with his opera Alceste; one of the roles was sung by Christian Ludwig Boxberg.

In the next years he developed into Strungk's right hand, and also wrote the librettos for most of his operas. When Strungk run up debts and slipped off Boxberg had a chance to present himself as a composer of operas in his own right. Two operas from his pen were performed in 1700 and 1701 respectively; both have been lost. Two other operas by Boxberg were performed in Ansbach in 1698, when the Leipzig opera - without Strungk - made a journey to the court of Margrave Georg Friedrich. Only one of them has been preserved in the Ansbach State Library. It is the opera which is the subject of the present production: Sardanapalus. From a historical point of view this is a very important work as it is the oldest extant opera from Central Germany which is entirely in the vernacular.

The title character is not that well-known. The Greek historian Diodorus reports that according to Ctesias of Cnidus Sardanapalus was the last king of Assyria. Diodorus says that Sardanapalus exceeded all previous rulers in sloth and luxury. He spent his whole life in self-indulgence. He dressed in women's clothes and wore make-up. He had many concubines, female and male. He wrote his own epitaph, which stated that physical gratification is the only purpose of life. His lifestyle caused dissatisfaction within the Assyrian empire, allowing a conspiracy against him. To avoid falling into the hand of his enemies, Sardanapalus had a huge funeral pyre created for himself on which were piled "all his gold, silver and royal apparel". He had his eunuchs and concubines boxed in inside the pyre, burning himself and them to death (*). This is the broad outline of the opera, but the story is too complicated to recapitulate here.

Stylistically this opera is a mixture of old and modern elements. Like Italian operas from the early 17th century it opens with a prologue; here it has the form of an ode to the Margrave. The arias are relatively short: the longest takes just a little over three minutes. The role of the instruments in the arias is mostly limited to the ritornellos. This opera dates from before the birth of the opera seria which explains the inclusion of a comic character, Atrax, who likes to show off with his alleged knowledge of French. These are features of 17th-century opera as we find them, for instance, in Cavalli's oeuvre. On the other hand there are elements which point to the 18th century. Most arias have a dacapo form, albeit rather rudimentary. There are some arias in which instruments fully participate; one of them includes an obbligato violin part. The recitatives are quite modern in comparison to compositions of Boxberg's contemporaries.

This is the recording of live performances from 2014. I would have liked to see it on DVD as the pictures in the booklet suggest historical staging and gesturing. However, we have to content ourselves with sound only. That is hardly a problem thanks to the lively singing and playing. The interaction between the protagonists comes off very well. All roles are given outstanding interpretations. I would like to mention especially Jan Kobow in the title role, Markus Flaig as his opponent Arbaces and Franz Vitzthum as Belochus, son of another opponent and in love with an Assyrian princess who loves Arbaces. Sören Richter gives an impeccable account of the role of Atrax and resists the temptation to lay the humorous elements on thick. I have only two reservations. Rinnat Moriah uses a little too much vibrato, and Theodora Baka seems to have some problems with the tessitura of her part as some top notes sound a little stressed.

It is a shame that the booklet includes liner-notes and a synopsis in English but omits a translation of the libretto. That is a serious flaw in every production of vocal music, but in 18th-century operas it is less of a problem because of the often virtuosic and sometimes quite long arias which one can enjoy even without knowing the text. That is different here. The music is enjoyable, but it is the story which - as in 17th-century opera - is in the centre. That makes this opera probably hard to be appreciated by music-lovers who don't understand German.

It would be a big shame if that would result in them ignoring this recording. Sardanapalus is not only important from a historical point of view. It is a compelling opera, musically and dramatically. This is a production of major importance.

(*) Wikipedia.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Markus Flaig
Rinnat Moriah
Sören Richter
Franz Vitzthum
United Continuo Ensemble

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