Sometimes, an endeavour that appears hopeless to one person can seem entirely possible to another. Take attempts to decipher Liszt’s messy, fragmentary venture to turn Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus into an opera. Scholars have known about this incomplete work for 100 years, but most have run away screaming from the partially illegible, shorthand scribbles that lurked forlorn and unloved in a library at Weimar.

Samuel Sakker and Anush Hovhannisyan sing <i>Sardanapolo</i> © Elena Giorgi
Samuel Sakker and Anush Hovhannisyan sing Sardanapolo
© Elena Giorgi

But not Dr David Trippett, pianist and Cambridge academic, who after years of painstaking research and considerable scholarship, has rebuilt Act 1 of Sardanapalo into an entirely convincing drama,  packed with incident and bursting with thrilling vocal and orchestral colour – think Bellini reimagined by Wagner and you have some idea of the vast emotional sweep of this gripping music.

First heard at Weimar earlier this month, Sardanapalo was given its second outing, with an entirely different cast and orchestra, as the highlight of the Suoni Dal Golfo festival at Lerici on the Ligurian coast, an appropriate setting for Liszt’s only attempt at an Italian opera.

The piece tells the story of Sardanapalus, King of Assyria in 650BC, who spurns warlike deeds for a life of wine, women and song. Mirra, his favourite Greek slave, laments her life as the lover of the man who holds her captive (Aida, anyone?) but is praised by the harem for her good fortune. In an aria of startling lyric beauty she longs for her homeland and sings of her unhappiness at being “a slave mocked by fate”. The King promises her all the splendour of the royal palace, and declares his love for her, but elder statesman Beleso warns of war, accusing the king of revelling while insurgents plot against him.

In a passage of impressive weight and grandeur, Beleso urges the king to take up arms and earn the people’s respect. Sardanapalo resists, admirably refusing to buy glory with the tears of the afflicted, until Mirra intervenes and stirs him to action. A grand trio closes the act, with Beleso beating the drums of war, Mirra convinced that her love has inspired the King to fight, and Sardanapalo feeling more regal than ever. As Byron’s tale foretells (and Delacroix’s famous picture in The Louvre, The Death of Sardanapalus, illustrates) it doesn’t end well – but we don’t know that, as Liszt never got beyond Act 1.

<i>Sardanapolo</i> rehearsals © Elena Giorgi
Sardanapolo rehearsals
© Elena Giorgi

Liszt spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, finally abandoning the draft in 1851. Trippett describes the surviving material as “a mixture of Italianate pastiche and mid-century harmonic innovation”. To new ears, the influence of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin – works that Liszt was immersed in at the time – seem obvious, but perhaps even more exciting is the composer’s (and Trippett’s) ability to mould shifting, sometimes scarily chromatic harmony to more traditional bel canto arias of supreme sophistication.

Making all this come to life in front of a packed audience in the church of San Francesco, Lerici, was conductor Giuseppe Bruno, who fought with limited success to quell the youthful enthusiasm of the Orchestra Excellence, a ensemble brimming with new talent that occasionally overwhelmed the soloists in the spacious acoustic but whose commitment to this unfolding revelation was never in doubt.

Soprano Anush Hovhannisyan excelled in her realisation of Mirra the slave girl, to whom Liszt assigns the most spectacular vocal writing. Her burnished tone and secure bel canto technique made this a performance to treasure. Tenor Sam Sakker made a suitably wheedling, weak-willed King, while superb bass Vagen Ghazaryan, stunned with his stentorian call to arms. Some enjoyable writing for the chorus could have been better served with stronger voices more able to keep in tune but that is a minor quibble when set against the overall achievement of bringing this single act of Sardanapalo back to glorious life. Surely it can’t be long before we hear other concert performances of this curio in London and elsewhere.

 

Stephen's press trip to Italy was funded by Suoni dal Golfo

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