Miriways – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Johann Samuel Müller [sung in German]
Miriways – André Morsch
Sophi – Robin Johannsen
Bemira – Sophie Karthäuser
Nisibis – Lydia Teuscher
Murzah – Michael Nagy
Samischa – Marie-Claude Chappuis
Zemir – Anett Fritsch
Geist/Scandor – Dominik Köninger
Gesandter – Paul McNamara
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Recorded 24 November 2017 at the Laeiszhalle, Hamburg
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: PENTATONE PTC 5186 842 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 35 minutes
Unusually for an opera seria – whether in Italian, or German as here – Telemann’s Miriways (1728) takes as its subject not ancient history, myth, or an episode in classic or Classical literature, but rather very recent geo-political history. Several decades before Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, this opera looked to the Middle East for (at the least) exotic inspiration, by taking up the revolt of an Afghan tribe in Kandahar against the ruling Safavid Empire, the precursor to the present day state of Iran. The Miriways of the opera is the historical Afghan leader Mir Mahmud, given the name of his father, Mir Wais, who had first launched a campaign in 1715, before his son took up the same cause which would eventually help to bring an end to the Safavid dynasty in Persia.
Having displaced the Shah (Sultan Husayn in history, but not appearing in the opera) Miriways now seeks, magnanimously, to bring the former’s son, Sophi, within the ambit of the new court by marrying him to his daughter. The fact that Sophi is already in love with Bemira sets the stage for the usual narrative tension between public duty and private affection, until the expected happy ending of eighteenth-century operatic convention comes into play once it is revealed that Bemira is Miriways’s unrecognised daughter who had been taken into hiding at the time of the military campaigns.
The opera gave Telemann cause to indulge in some apparently ‘Oriental’ colour but, admittedly, as the liner notes indicate, that looks little further afield than the musical style of eastern Europe. However, drums and other percussion – for example in the Act One chorus of Persians – evoke the janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire, which gets a little closer to Persia at least. Johann Samuel Müller’s libretto, with its stage directions, also suggests that certain documentary sources were drawn upon to create more authentic stagings and costumes in productions of the work in 1728 and 1730.
This live recording from the Hamburg Telemann Festival of 2017 (the 250th- anniversary of the composer’s death) captures the vigour of a performance on the stage, with some inevitable rough and ready edges to boot. The vocal phrases are occasionally choppy from most of the singers, rather than more fully sustained, as though responding to or accompanying actions we cannot see. But otherwise they clearly enjoy themselves, as do the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the solid leadership of Bernard Labadie who sensitively brings out the character or Affekt of each aria – Telemann, in this respect, demonstrating a similarly astute dramatic sensibility as his friend, Handel, with only marginally less melodic invention. Whooping horns frequently add exotic colour – for the most part warm and vibrant, but sometimes the notes go awry. Elsewhere strings sometimes add tonal richness, and an oboe d’amore offers a reedy plangency.
André Morsch responds to Telemann’s often strenuous, bold music for the title character without fluster or strain, achieving a touch of suffering regret in his final appeal to Sophi – who would reject his offer to become his son-in-law, before Bemira’s identity is happily uncovered. Marie-Claude Chappuis is over-expressive initially, at the expense of clearer musical logic, but settles down into fresher articulation as Miriways’s secret wife Samischa. If Robin Johannsen, in the trouser role of Sophi, has a slight nasal edge at times, elsewhere she brings great feeling and exertion to the role. Bemira herself is decently and demurely characterised by Sophie Karthäuser.
In a somewhat more comical subplot, involving a real love triangle, Michael Nagy’s dynamic Murzah and Anett Fritsch’s wily Zemir both vie for Nisibis’s affections, understandably so in view of the lively coquetry which Lydia Teuscher brings to that part. Dominik Köninger provides the deep but ethereal voice of the spirit of the overthrown Shah in another sensational, if irresistible, coup de théâtre on Telemann’s part – interestingly, an effect also found in Vivaldi’s roughly contemporary L’incoronazione di Dario, also set in the Middle East (albeit in ancient times).The booklet includes the libretto with an English translation (which could have done with some proof-reading) but there is no synopsis for easier reference to gauge the plot. Setting aside any reservations about the (arguably dubious) presentation of Orientalism, which may be entertained along similar lines as Edward Said’s arguments in his eponymous book, this is an opera and performance offering much musical delight and another worthwhile rediscovery of a little-known work from the huge corpus of Baroque opera.