There are many operas that have not seen completion, some of which have been supplied with endings realised by other composers or musicologists. In a fair number– one thinks primarily about the various endings to Puccini’s Turandot provided by either Alfano or Berio – the major part of the works by the original composers are extant and they had often left some sketches and significant indications as to completion.
This premiere recording present’s the first Act of Liszt’s Sardanapolo, based on a Byron play, in a realisation by David Trippett who has brilliantly orchestrated the surviving piano-vocal score that Liszt abandoned sometime in the early-1850s, never to return to it or any other operatic venture.
According to the excellent booklet note, this score, whilst having complete and notated vocal lines, provides only limited and abbreviated or coded information regarding orchestration, dynamics, tempos and counterpoint. In Trippett’s version there are echoes of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) and of Lohengrin (1850), but more often than not the lyrical music is more redolent of the operas of Hungarian Ferenc Erkel and Pole Stanisław Moniuszko of the same period.
The other work here, an exciting reading of Liszt’s contemporaneous Mazeppa, demonstrates how well Trippett has achieved his aim – for Sardanapolo sounds to hail from the Liszt stable most convincingly. Given that only Act One ever saw any daylight there is no cathartic conclusion to the drama, leaving one with a tantalising sense of what could have followed. Understandably, there are few moments that really stand out as having the potential to lead operatic composition in an entirely new direction – but we should remain thankful that Liszt went on to champion operatic works of others, notably Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini aand Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila.
Byron’s play Sardanapalus was premiered in London in 1834. It tells of the Assyrian King who lacks morality, military ambition, marital fidelity and the general qualities of rulership. He also lacks the support of his ministers, officers and court and fails to execute or imprison those discovered to be plotting against him despite the urgings of his brother-in-law Salamenes as well as his lover, the Greek-slave girl Myrrha. This fosters further rebellions and eventually a combination of military defeat and the natural disaster of the flooding of the river Euphrates lead to his downfall. He dies, with Myrrha, through immolation.
Act One of Liszt’s vision centres around Mirra. Emotionally supported by her sister concubines, she is torn by love for the King, her conversion to his faith and self-loathing at the fate of her countrymen and kindred after their conquering by the Assyrians – so she’s a definite dramatic precursor to Verdi’s Aida. Sardanapolo enters and in an impassioned duet he seeks to reassure her of his love and his protection. Then the soothsayer Beleso appears, castigating Sardanapolo for his apathy, warning him of insurrection. Sardanapolo finally rallies his supporters for battle as the Act comes to a martial close.
The performance is excellent, captured in a very immediate-sounding acoustic, not over-reverberant and with voices somewhat to the fore. Dynamic range is also wide. Kirill Karabits and the excellent players of Staatskapelle Weimar take an energetic and appropriately exciting approach to the score with more than a whiff of the theatre to it. Joyce El-Khoury is an attractively italianate-voiced and involving Mirra, and although she has the necessary virtuosity and power she does occasionally sound stretched by some of the vocal writing. Following with the libretto (sadly not printed in the booklet although a link is provided to an electronic version) one realises and appreciates her interpretation and inflection of the text. Her Scene II cavatina, with some evocative accompaniment, is particularly successful. As Sardanapolo, Airam Hernández provides forthright declamatory power and floods of generously sappy if slightly insistent tone in the duet with Mirra. Oleksandr Pushniak sings a resonantly imposing and fiery Beleso towards the close as the dramatic temperature starts to rise. Great support from the ladies’ chorus.