musica Dei donum
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
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
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
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)