It is hardly surprising that when the score of Orpheus resurfaced in the late 20th century after some 250 years of oblivion, one at first thought it was a pasticcio. Composed in 1726 by Georg Philipp Telemann for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in the cosmopolitan trading hub of Hamburg, Orpheus is a truly European work of art. The libretto, assembled by the composer himself, includes a wealth of texts borrowed from other operas of the time, all in their original language. The German recitatives thread together a succession of arias, duets and choruses composed on lyrics that switch from German to French and then to Italian. Handel's fans will probably recognize behind Eurimedes’ third-act aria the verses of Almirena's “Augeletti, che cantate” in Rinaldo.

Loading image...
Krešimir Stražanac
© Patrick Vogel

The variety does not stop at languages only: Telemann appears as fluent in the music styles of each country as he is in their native tongues. The arias in Italian are virtuosic da capo pieces often packed with the kind of vocal fireworks that would have sent the public of a Venetian theatre roaring. Chorus passages in French boast a pronounced Rameau-esque flair, and some of the German numbers have a pathos that would not have been out of place in a Passion oratorio. The deliberately eclectic character of the work as a whole remains as curious to a modern audience as it perhaps was to Telemann's contemporaries. The music is engaging however and, in the hands of the excellent B'Rock Orchestra and conductor René Jacobs, it  quickly becomes clear that it is much more than just a curiosity. The performance at the Concertgebouw on 23rd October turned into a very enjoyable journey of discovery into Telemann's polyglot music. 

Telemann's libretto diverges somewhat from the usual legend of Orpheus as it introduces a third main character next to Orpheus and his doomed young wife Eurydice: Orasia, Queen of Thrace. The story becomes a classic love triangle in which she is the key: she is enamored with Orpheus and jealous of his love for Eurydice. She is the one who calls the snakes whose bite sends Eurydice to her death. Later in the story, when Orpheus comes back from his failed journey into the Underworld and understandably continues to rejects her advances, she sends a group of Bacchantes to kill him before dying from remorse. 

With nine strongly contrasted arias, the role of Orasia is almost of Handelian format. Lyric soprano Kateryna Kasper projected the temperamental character with passion, sometimes calling on her chest register to distill some extra venom. She navigated her stylistically varied arias – two of which were in French and one in Italian – with unrestrained commitment. Her rendition of the coloratura-packed aria “Sù, mio core à la vendetta!” earned her loud applause from the audience. 

The music written for the character of Orpheus is arguably less varied in mood than that of Orasia, but it wins in terms of lyricism and pathos. His arias often get the most beautifully effective instrumental pairings, as with the string pizzicato in “Ach Tod, ach süsse Tod!”, poignantly sung here by Krešimir Stražanac. His warm, finely grained baritone proved a good match for the hero. The short role of Eurydice, who dies in the middle of the first act to only reappear shortly in the Underworld, was sang by Mirella Hagen. Her light-lyric instrument conveyed youth and innocence. Tenor David Fischer's sweet timbre made for an endearing Eurimedes. As Pluto, god of the Underworld, Christian Immler's bass-baritone was focused and flexible. 

More than 20 years have passed since René Jacobs’ historical recording of this opera with Akademie für Alte Muzik in Berlin, but performances of Telemann’s operas remain a rarity. Let us bet that B’Rock Orchestra's latest tour will provide a further impulse in the rediscovery of this most European of Baroque composers.