Obscure Telemann Opera ‘Miriways’ Sparkles On Disc

The creators of Telemann’s ‘Miriways’ may have been inspired by this drawing by the Dutch painter Cornelis de Bruyn, who visited the ruins of Persepolis in 1703.

DIGITAL REVIEW – A nice contrast to the flood of new Vivaldi opera recordings and collections by mezzos and countertenors of castrato-inspired Baroque arias has appeared in Pentatone’s fine release of an opera of which surely few have ever heard: Miriways by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). Bernard Labadie, the gifted founder of Quebec’s Les Violons du Roy and music director of Orchestra of St Luke’s since 2018, leads the superbly stylish Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and a strong cast through this attractive, viable score. The drama, couched in the too-familiar “otherness” of the Middle East as perceived by European creative artists in the century after the Ottoman Turks reached (and besieged) Vienna in 1683, would require sensitive staging, but the musical side proves highly rewarding.

The recording is from a live 2017 concert. (Pentatone)

Like most students coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s reflourishing of Baroque praxis and performance, the Essential Facts I learned about Telemann were that he composed copiously and that he inverted the just-emerging fast/slow/fast concerto form. A typical teenager, I preferred fast movements to slow and – though I could hear his skillful craft – tended to steer clear, seeking out Vivaldi, Bach, and even Locatelli concerti instead.

While a tradition of performing Telemann operas has persisted in his native Magdeburg since the rebirth of German interest in Baroque opera in the late 1920s, not much energy and few recordings got devoted to his vocal works until more recent decades. The only such LP in any collection I had access to was the cantata “Machet die Tore weit” with soprano Teresa Stich-Randall and conductor Wilfred Böttcher with what now seems a comparatively lush Viennese orchestra – commercially paired, not incidentally, with a work by J. S. Bach.

Telemann, who was active from 1701 to 1719 in Leipzig and thereafter in that great operatic center of its time Hamburg, penned more than 50 stage works given various generic designations: intermezzi, comic Singspiels, Nachspiels, opéras comiques, and serenatas, as well as serious operas. Only nine of these pieces have come down to us complete. However, as with his 1726 “musical drama” Orpheus, recorded in 1998 by the selfsame Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under René Jacobs, manuscripts continue to come to light from time to time. The most frequently staged (and recorded) is the intermezzo Pimpinone (1725), though the comic opera Der geduldige Socrates (1721) has also achieved some modern performances (and a Hungaroton issue from Nicholas McGegan).

Image of Mirwais Khan Hotak on Afghanistan postage stamp

The story (of which Pentatone’s booklet unfortunately fails to provide a synopsis) deals with the genre’s usual romantic complications and dynastic struggles. The former assume larger importance, through the (again) usual lenses of shifting alliances and mistaken identities. But the historical setting drew on recent political developments that would have been known to Hamburg: the military and political successes of an actual Afghan emir named Mirwais (1673-1715), who defied the fading Persian Empire, centered in Isfahan where the opera transpires. There are competing Persian and Tartar rulers, siblings, secret wives and daughters.

Miriways‘ formal structure mainly consists of jaunty, tuneful da capo arias. As common in much of Handel’s operatic output, there’s only one duet, but it’s worth the wait: “Welch süsses Ergötzen,” for Murzah (the Tartar monarch) and his Persian beloved Nisibis. Telemann also provides one accompanied recitative, a few spirited sinfonia movements, and some rhythmically catchy choruses, including the jubilant finale. Hamburg’s Oper am Gänsemarkt often presented macaronic works, including operas by its Intendant from 1695-1718, Reinhard Keiser, Johann Mattheson (whose Boris Goudenow the Boston Early Music Festival staged in 2005), and even the novice-to-the-form Handel: 1705’s Almira, Königin von Castilienis is in Italian, German, and French.

But Miriways‘ libretto, by Johann Samuel Müller, is entirely in German. The style of Telemann’s recitatives, with harpsichord and cello continuo, proves rather singsong; the words are set – and delivered by the largely German-speaking cast – quite expressively. Their flow and contour remind one more of Bach’s procedure in the Passions more than the contemporaneous recitative treatment of Alessandro Scarlatti or Handel. Musical elements that Telemann uses to orientalizing effect include coloristic percussive figures evoking Janissary bands and liberal use of horns in the orchestral texture. Labadie’s players excel in executing the former with élan: Not just drums but also blocks and wind machines enter the mix. Granted, the horn writing poses challenges, but (as I often find with historically informed performance ensembles) the “natural” horn sounds produced here don’t always fall gracefully on the ear.

Soprano Robin Johannsen

Pentatone offers a notably well-engineered live recording (captured, aptly enough, in Hamburg, at a Nov. 24, 2017, concert) in which applause occurs mainly after the ends of the three short acts; baritone Dominik Köninger wins an outbreak for the servant Scandar’s brindisi “So lustig, ihr Brüder.” Philadelphia-born Robin Johannsen brings lovely (if inevitably feminine) timbre to Sophi, the deposed Shah’s son, who loves Miriways’ daughter Bemira (fellow soprano Sophie Karthäuser, also fine.) Anett Fritsch as the Persian ruler Zemir is among the current It sopranos of European Regie directors, for camera-ready looks. She displays a bright, chipper but there’s a bit of a soubrette quality tonally, and here her passagework – especially the treatment of staccati – is often swift rather than accurate. The same could be said of the florid work of characterful baritone Michael Nagy (Murzah), airy soprano Lydia Teuscher as his beloved Nisibis, and particularly the dynamically sensitive baritone André Morsch in the title role. Swiss mezzo Marie-Claude Chappuis makes a fluent, mellow Samischa (Miriway’s wife). This Miriways makes for highly enjoyable listening.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City. He regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and many other venues and has done program essays for the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.