Keiser Diegrossmütige Tomyris

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Keiser Diegrossmütige Tomyris

  • (Die) Grossmütige Tomyris

Except for a scene from Octavia in 1955 and extracts from Croesus in 1962 (both of which were greeted enthusiastically), the operas of Reinhard Keiser have been pretty thoroughly neglected by record companies. Yet this leading light of the first Hamburg opera house, who wrote something like a hundred works for the stage, was hailed even by his rival Mattheson as ''the honour of Germany'' and ''le plus grand homme du monde'', was praised to the skies by other knowledgeable musicians like Telemann and Hasse, and greatly influenced the young Handel (whom he had engaged as a second violin in the Hamburg orchestra).
So—not getting much help from a pretentious and wordy booklet note about the plot, not the music (and with the text in German only)—one turns with considerable curiosity to the present work The magnanimity of Tomyris, first produced in 1717 and widely taken up at the time. The absurdly artificial libretto, based on one previously used by Albinoni (and in several places left in the original Italian), centres on the widowed queen Tomyris who, having defeated the Persian king Cyrus (who died in battle), is now hesitating at length between two kings who both want to marry her because her heart is drawn to her faithful general Tigranes; but he mourns his betrothed Meroe, Cyrus's dauehter. who is presumed dead Meroe and her confidant Latyrus, however, turn up disguised as sorcerers: she reveals her identity to Tigranes alone and makes him promise to help her take revenge on the queen. But he snatches from her hand the dagger she draws on the sleeping queen and consequently is taken for the assailant, arrested and condemned to death. To save him, Meroe confesses her guilt and is arrested in his stead; but Tigranes is suddenly discovered (through a birthmark!) to be Tomyris's own son who had been abducted as a child, so that her affection for him proves to be maternal. As he evidently loves Meroe, the queen magnanimously pardons her and lets them marry.
It takes about half an hour, after a curious introductory sinfonia (or rather concerto a 5, beginning with a solo flute over pizzicato strings) for anything of much musical interest to appear (could Keiser have been holding his fire until latecomers to the theatre had settled down?); but from then on one is constantly struck by the melodic invention and, more particularly, by the remarkable diversity of instrumental coloration (which impressed Handel), even though the orchestra consists only of strings, flute, oboes and bassoon. Tomyris is specially favoured in this regard: she has one aria accompanied only by cellos, bass and flute, another with a concertante oboe, and one ''Kuhle Winde'', which is truly extraordinary. Other characters too, however, are given unusual accompaniments: Latyrus has an aria with an obbligato bassoon and continuo only, Tigranes a very florid one in Act 3 accompanied only by woodwind. Apart from the instrumentation, some numbers are outstanding, such as Tomyris's lovely expressive ''Umwalke doch'' and an aria furiosa, both in Act 3.
Even disregarding the ubiquitous shufflings and stage noises arising from a small theatre relay, this performance is unfortunately nothing to shout about. The considerable cuts that were made to bring the work's original duration of four hours down to about half that length result in extremely unconvincing recitatives which modulate incredibly and change key and direction inexplicably. The Linde Consort are dependable, though they could have attacked the fiery numbers (of which there are several) with more passion, but the cast is too variable in standard-to be satisfactory. Much the best singing comes from the lyric tenor Christoph Pregardien (whom we have already had occasion to admire in Bach): his fioriture in ''Nell' apparenza'' are excellently clean. The Norwegian soprano Marianne Hirsti has a light, pretty voice whose purity of intonation affords much pleasure, but her two vengeance arias emerge merely as amiably animated. Much more character is shown by Gabriele Fontana, but she is ill at ease in the high register, and her placing of notes in florid passages is far from exact. There is a respectable tenor in Oskar Purgstaller, but Stefan Dahlberg sounds rough and hams up ''Mein herbes Leid'' (with a big oboe obbligato) intolerably; and I began to shrink at every entry by Alan Cemore's coarse, unsteady and ill-pitched voice.'

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