© Sam H. Shirakawa
|Amorous Alessandro: butterflies, blossoms, busses|
If I could take only one recording of one aria to a desert island, I would be hard put to foresake “Jungfrau Maria...” from Friedrich von Flotow’s Alessandro Stradella. Its simplicity and grace, as sung by Herbert Ernst Groh offers solace and uplift I get from only a few other arias.
Is the rest of the opera as beautiful? To find the answer, I went to Giessen to see what must be the first mounting of the work anywhere in many decades. It’s currently being presented by the Giessen Stadt Theater to honor Flotow’s 200th birthday.
Yes, I find the rest of the opera is as beautiful as the signature aria, but in different ways. Rousing ensemble numbers, big choruses, witty patter -- the work has everything. Flotow originally conceived it as a one-act comedy that opened to great success in 1837 in Paris. He then expanded the work into a full-fledged opera and had it presented seven years later in Hamburg. This is the version that we know today. The revised piece amounted to a breakthrough for the composer and led to, among other commissions, his best known work Martha three years later.
|Alessandro dines at the head table on Tafel Spitz|
Wilhelm Riese’s libretto follows the last amorous adventure of the real-life Alessandro Stradella, a famous singer and composer in 17th century Rome and Venice, whose libido was reputedly even bigger than his talent. Alessandro wants to elope with the young, beautiful and pert Leonore on the eve of her marriage to Bassi, her guardian. Bassi gets wind of the plan and hires a pair of dimwitted assassins Malvoglio and Barbarini to kill Alessandro. But the puissance of Alessandro’s singing seduces them into helping him get Leonore away from Bassi.
In real-life, Alessandro’s larynx was no match against his assassins, and Flotow pays heed to history at the end of his opera -- sort of...
Killer trio: Stephan Bootz (center), Wojtek Halicki-Alicca (left), Matthias Ludwig (right)
The importance of Alessandro Stradella the opera lies not in its plot but in the variety of its unending chain of melodies. It’s billed as a "romantic opera," but it has the hear and feel of a through-written musical. What may prevent it from catching hold on contemporary season calendars is its call for a Heldentenor who must sing multiple arias and take part in sundry duets and ensemble numbers virtually without respite. (Leo Slezak was the Metropolitan Opera’s first (1906) and only Alessandro to date.)
American Corey Bix, who undertakes the title role in Giessen, has a voice of heroic proportions, as well as the requisite high notes, of which there are many. But he lacked the stamina at the premiere to give conviction to “Jungfrau Maria,” which Flotow places toward the end of the opera. That said, Bix is also a competent comedian and evokes chronic giggles in his wigged-out getups, designed by Bernhard Niechotz. He looks as if he were John Lithgow, having suddenly to improv a Restoration comedy.
|Anna Gütter (Leonore)|
Anna Gütter took the part of Leonore at the premiere and proved herself as agile physically as she is vocally. Stephan Bootz seemed more addled than menacing as Leonore’s guardian Bassi, but he was a suitably crass cuckold. Wojtek Halicki-Alicca (Malvoglio) and Matthias Ludwig (Barbarino -- stepping in on short notice) are hilarious as the pair of inane assassins.
Jan Hoffmann kept the often chaotic musical proceedings moving along at a merry pace, despite some unfocused moments among the brass.
|Stadttheater Giessen Façade. The building, a superb example of Jugendstyl architecture, was completed mostly with private funds in 1907. Architects: Ferdinand Fellner, Hermann Helmer|
|The house seats about 600 spectators.|
The premiere played to a sold out audience. Not surprising, since Giessen (pop. ca. 80,000) has a long history of support for the performing arts through private funds. Crowd sourcing, in fact, financed most of the construction costs of the 600 seat theater in 1907. Today, under the leadership of an imaginative management, Giessen's municipal theater presents a full season of music theater, dance programs and plays. Later this season, for example, Pacini’s Maria Tudor and a chamber version of Berg’s Lulu are set to receive local premieres. Stadttheater Giessen can take risks presenting such rarities, thanks to a healthy subscription program that guarantees more people in the audience than on stage.
Prodution photographs: © Dietmar Janeck
Graphics, curtain call & other photographs: © Sam H. Shirakawa