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Joseph Schuster: Demofoonte, opera seria in 3 acts

Marie Melnitzki (Creusa), Dorothee Mields (Dircea), Jörg Waschinski (Timante), soprano; Werner Buchin (Cherinto), Bernhard Schafferer (Adrasto), alto; Jan Kobow (Matusio), Andreas Post (Demofoonte), tenor
La Ciaccona
Dir: Ludger Rémy
rec: May 29 - June 3, 2001, Alteglofsheim (Ger), Bayerische Musikakademie
deutsche harmonia mundi - 74321 98282 2 (2 CDs; 66'03"/73'04")

The German keyboard player and conductor Ludger Rémy regularly performs and records forgotten repertoire. This time it is an opera by the German composer Joseph Schuster.
Schuster was the son of a bass singer, who had sung under Johann Adolf Hasse in Dresden. He was sent to Italy by the Elector of Saxony, accompanying his countryman Naumann, and after returning started to compose comic operas. A couple of years later he went to Italy again, where he studied with the famous 'Padre' Martini, and started to compose operas. Demofoonte was first performed in Forlì in 1776: it was used to open the new theatre. Although Forlì was a provincial city, Demofoonte was sung by some of Italy's most famous opera singers.
The libretto dates from 1731 and was written by the famous poet Metastasio, and set to music by several composers. In fact, his libretti were used well into the 19th century. They date from the 1720s and 1730s, the baroque era, when arias were relatively short. In the classical period, however, arias became considerably longer and therefore cuts had to be made in order to avoid opera performances becoming too long. Schuster followed some of the cuts Paisiello made in his version of Demofoonte from 1775, although Schuster also restored some parts Paisiello had omitted.

The story goes like this: Demofoonte's kingdom is suffering under a curse. According to an oracle the life of a virgin must be sacrificed every year "as long as the innocent usurper sits on the throne". Minister Matusio tries to bring his daughter Dircea out of the country to protect her from being sacrificed. Demofoonte and Matusio both don't know that Dircea is secretly married to the crown prince Timante, and that they have a son. Timante is supposed to marry Creusa, a princess from another country. Timante's younger brother Cherinto is accompanying her to Demofoonte's kingdom, but falls in love with her. When he meets Creusa Timante tells her he can't marry her, but doesn't give any reason for it. In the meantime Dircea has been caught when trying to flee the country and has been imprisoned; the king decides she will be sacrificed. When Timante refuses to marry Creusa in change for the release of Dircea, the king orders the immediate sacrifice of Dircea. Timante decides to try to release her. His attempts fail, and Timante and Dircea are imprisoned.
Dircea has befriended Creusa, who now asks Demofoonte for mercy. The king decides to release Timante and Dircea. Timante is willing to give up the throne in favour of Cherinto. But then a letter is found which reveals that Dircea is the daughter of Demofoonte, which makes Timante and Dircea brother and sister. Timante reacts by taking his distance from Dircea. Then another letter reveals that Timante is the son of Matusio. The marriage between Timante and Dircea is legal, and Cherinto is the real crown prince and can marry Creusa. And no more virgins are sacrificed, since Timante is no longer the "innocent usurper of the throne".

The presentation of this recording leaves something to be desired. The overture comes from another opera by Schuster, Rübezahl. The booklet doesn’t explain why. The character of Adrasto has an aria in Act I, but the synopsis doesn’t mention him, and in the liner notes he is just described as ‘minor figure’ – but who exactly is he? Extensive information is given about the conductor, the orchestra and its leader, but no word is devoted to the singers. Isn’t that a little odd?

It is difficult to assess the dramatic qualities of Schuster's opera on the basis of this recording. The first reason is the huge number of cuts made in the score. The booklet says: "A number of recitatives were cut for this recording, and these texts do not appear here." Well, quite a number of scenes have been cut completely: scenes 6 and 7 from Act I, scenes 2, 3, 8 and 9 from Act II and scene 2 from Act III. And some scenes have been cut quite drastically as well. That is very unfortunate. It breaks up the dramatic development of the opera. As a result this recording is more a collection of highlights than an opera recording. While listening one is almost forced to use the pause button of the CD player in order to read the text between square brackets which explains the content of the omitted scenes. That doesn't help to keep the dramatic momentum either.

The interpretation doesn't make things any better. Most voices are quite good and the orchestra certainly is. But never one has the feeling to listen to a dramatic story - there is just no theatrical atmosphere whatsoever. The recitatives are handled with too little flexibility and rhythmic freedom, the tempi are slowish and there is very little lively interaction between the protagonists. Hearing this I can understand why some people think recitatives are boring.
There is a lack of differentiation in the arias as well. Both singers and orchestra should play a little more with tempo and dynamics in order to enhance the tension.
Dorothee Mields has a very nice voice, and does well in the aria 'Padre, perdona' (Act I), but lacks the dramatic power needed for the aria 'Se tutti i mali miei' (Act II). Marie Melnitzki has a completely different voice, well suited to the dramatic but smallish role of Creusa. I don't like her slight vibrato, though, and in her two arias - reminiscent of the aria of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Zauberflöte - she fails to deliver the full power of rage displayed there. Jörg Waschinski is well cast, and in fact one of the more satisfying singers of this recording, although I have heard him better in other recordings. The altos are just too static and lack dramatic power. Bernhard Schafferer has an annoying tremolo in his voice, which makes his singing unpleasant to listen to. The tenors have beautiful voices, but - again - lack the imagination and the feeling for a dramatic work like this. The cadenzas at the end of the arias are not very imaginative. In addition, the pronunciation of Italian isn’t very idiomatic.

The orchestra plays very well, and creates nice dynamic contrasts, but most of the time their playing is too much down-to-earth and lacking atmosphere.

I have often admired Ludger Rémy, who has delivered great recordings of neglected compositions. But opera, I have to say on the basis of this recording, is not his forte. He is well advised to leave that to others.

Fortunately the music is well worth listening to. The characterisation of the protagonists in the arias is quite convincing. In the liner notes Steffen Voss rightly points out the ‘Sturm und Drang’ character of Schuster’s music, which is reflected for example in the sudden changes in tempo within arias. And the crescendi in the orchestral part show the influence of Jommelli and the Mannheim school.
Musically speaking this opera is in no way inferior to operas by better-known composers of Schuster’s time – at least those I have heard. Among the highlights are the aria of Dircea ‘Padre, perdona’ and the duet of Timante and Dircea at the end of Act II.
I sincerely hope that some time we will have the opportunity to hear this work in its entirety in a really good and dramatic performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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