Louis Spohr Jessonda Highlights (Varady, Behle, Moll, Fischer-Dieskau)

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Jessonda - Julia Varady
Amazili - Renate Behle
Nadori - Thomas Moser
Dandau - Kurt Moll
Tristan d'Acunha - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Pedro Lopes (tenor), a Portuguese colonel - Peter Haage

Louis Spohr's fame as a violinist and a composer of a series of violin concertos has completely eclipsed his considerable operatic output that, among other things, includes the first musical version of Goethe's "Faust". However, it was another work, "Jessonda", a Germanic prototype for what was to become Meyerbeerian grand opera, that had won the attention and praise of the contemporary European musical establishment. Just like Mercadante and not unlike Wagner, Spohr desired to revolutionize the style of his music: "Address to the German composers", an almost Marxist manifesto published not long after the presentation of "Jessonda" (the premiere of which occurred on the 28th of July, 1823 in Kassel, Germany), proclaimed the need to create a symphonic opera in which each number would be an integral part of the whole. Accordingly, the composer criticized virtually all composers of his time for various faults in reaching this ideal: Beethoven - for writing "eccentric, unconnected and incomprehensible" music; Weber - for being "an amateur"; Rossini - for "the failure to balance music and drama". "Jessonda" was, according to Spohr, the fulfillment of all his ideas. And, indeed, the opera attracted many admirers: most tellingly, the 1840 London premiere of the opera was met with rare unanimity of the British press with the Times raving about how "the work must be studied again and again, and still it will be inexhaustible". "Jessonda" remained in the popular repertoire throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th when the opera was banned by the Nazis on nationalistic grounds.

The libretto, written by Eduard Gehe and based on Lemiere's novel, "La veuve de Malabar", was considered by the composer an ideal story for an operatic work: Jessonda (soprano), widow of the Rajah, must be burned to death on his funeral pyre. Before her marriage she had been in love with a Portuguese general. A young Brahmin, Nadori (tenor), is sent from the Hindu temple to bring Jessonda the order for her death, as dictated by their customs. However, he falls in love with her sister, Amazili (soprano). The Portuguese forces that are camped outside the city are led by Tristan d'Acunha (baritone) who just happens to be the heroine's former lover. Jessonda is rescued in the nick of time, before Dandau (bass), the chief Brahmin, can carry out the intended sacrifice. The narrative is highly romantic, and, indeed, seems just the right theme for a grand opera, yet neither the composer or the poet provide anything particularly credible, as Spohr's ideals actually deny the story to be developed above what is an almost too straightforward conflict which leads to a series of rather passionless numbers.

I am unsure of what to write about the work's music, even after a few sessions with the recording. There is no doubt that Spohr must have been a very professional composer; and, indeed, there is some very attractive music in the work. However, Spohr's success is questionable, in my opinion: he certainly does destroy the Italianate notion of set-pieces but in the process he also denies us any kind of sustained movements or musical continuity even in the shortest pieces. The work's frequent but maddeningly brief flashes of inspiration are completely nullified by the composer's constant indecisiveness about what mood or orchestral texture his music should take. I can understand the need to vary the musical production for the sake of drama but even Wagner, working with the same ideals in mind, understood the need to develop true melody and to sustain important moments, whereas Spohr (whose work Wagner criticized for its adherence to the polonaise rhythm) strives for continuity within each act by strangely exercising any kind of continuity in the numbers themselves. All this is especially maddening considering the short moments of great beauty that occur regularly the opera (and it is those passages that have brought me to the idea of the present posting, despite my feelings to the work as a whole). Truth be told, all the above-mentioned criticism should be directed at Spohr, rather than his contemporaries: it is Spohr that turns out to be the more uneven composer, despite his high ideals, great ego and, in fact, some true inspiration.

The 1994 recording under the direction of Gerd Albrecht leading the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus is an all-around excellent one. Julia Varady, as per usual, sings with great beauty and sensitivity, and her companions are just as accomplished, on the other hand, Fischer-Dieskau, in one of his last recordings, sounds slightly raw by comparison, though his art of word-painting is still very much in evidence.