René Jacobs and the Staatsoper in Berlin have a long history in reviving long-forgotten operas, such as Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra, Haydn’s Orlando Paladino or Traetta’s Antigona. The most recent re-discovery is Georg Philipp Telemann’s Emma und Eginhard, first performed in Hamburg in 1728 in a gala event. This explains the original length of the opera (over four hours) and a cast list as long as R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
Even if René Jacobs professed an unbridled enthusiasm for this score, he himself found it safer to cut it to fit the three-hour limit. I thank him for this decision. Although the opera is almost entirely made of short arias on the fast-and-bright side, we are miles behind of the inspiration and insight of Handel’s Serse. Telemann did not master the art of giving any meaning to coloratura or of finding any depth of expression – he seemed to be contented to stay within the limits of prettiness. Actually, this is not true – by the end of the opera, when the plot acquires some seriousness and characters have to express their grief in a more direct manner, Telemann’s music can be quite touching, especially in the duet for sopranos or in Hildegard’s lament on her friend’s death sentence. If you left the theatre unimpressed, then it’s entirely Telemann’s fault. René Jacobs conducted a spirited and sensitive performance, with top-quality playing from the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, including excellent French horn obligato in the best aria of the entire opera. Although director Eva-Maria Höckmayr tries too hard to add some political/historical/philosophical depth to a story perfectly effective in its cuteness, she does it without spoiling the fun: the staging is animated without being hectic, the Personenregie is detailed but not fussy and Julia Rösler’s costumes and Nina von Essen’s sceneries are exquisite and intelligent. Olaf Freese’s lighting is particularly effective too.
If something could be developed upon this would be the cast. Although these singers are all of them very reliable, only one or two truly master the style and use the writing to express an idea rather than dealing with it as a difficult task to get done with. The most important part is the role of Emma, which invariably gets the best arias in the score. As soprano Robin Johannsen sings it with complete sense of style, technical abandon and charm, the audience couldn’t help preferring her to her colleagues on stage. As the object of her affection, Nikolay Borchev proved to be truly adept with fioriture and other technical difficulties, but the tone is not intrinsically appealing and he is not truly at ease with baroque aesthetics. Although his German is accented, he makes sense of the text and is dramatically engaged. Stephanie Atanasov has a fruity, appealing mezzo and sang with some affection, but again this does not seem to be her repertoire. Baritone Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, has experience with baroque composers, and yet he seemed to be in a bad-voice day. Jan Martiník proved to have a comedy vein in his mock military aria and sang the final solo beautifully. Stephan Rügamer did not have much to sing, but the little we could hear makes me think that maybe he should have considered a career as a Bach tenor.