Metzingen, Germany: Friday 4 October 2002
Of course, we know that Raff wrote six operas but simply knowing his catalogue doesn't prepare you for the experience of hearing one performed. Even to one well versed in his music, there was something slightly surreal about the prospect of witnessing the premiere of the master's "lyric" opera Benedetto Marcello. Nonetheless conductor Grzegorz Nowak led the SWR Rundfunk Orchestra of Kaiserslautern and his soloists in an impeccably prepared and highly committed performance which did both Raff's reputation and his opera proud.
This concert performance, in Metzingen's Stadthalle, brought to an end the week-long Herbstliche Musiktage festival which has established a tradition of resurrecting forgotten operas by neglected composers - previous years have seen Abert's "Ekkehard" and Ignaz Lachner's "Die Regenbrüder" given an airing. A splendid new edition of Raff's opera had been prepared by Volker Tosta's Edition Nordstern from the autograph manuscript. All credit to him for being the prime mover in ensuring the premiere of this delightful and worthwhile score nearly a century and a quarter after its completion.
The Overture, first heard in Lachen three years ago, fizzes along delightfully with plenty of gorgeous melody. In this it is a true prelude to the work proper. Unsurprisingly, Raff's operatic style is untouched by Wagner. As a very experienced composer for the voice, his lines are eminently singable, with no trace of declamatory writing. Although the work is set in 1727 Venice, the only concession to "period" style is the incorporation of multiple trills into a couple of Faustina's arias where she is singing "songs" as opposed to dialogue. Although light, the orchestration is never spare - this is full blooded Raff in a vein very reminiscent of his Italian Suite for orchestra, two movements from which are incorporated into the opera. The work itself is something of a conversation piece, reminiscent of Strauss' "Capriccio". There are only four soloists and the story is straightforward and simply told in Raff's own libretto.
Although named after the composer Marcello, the opera's alternative title of "Art and Love" is more appropriate to the libretto's theme of conflict between the two. Marcello himself has marginally the least to do of the four soloists and the opera really belongs to the two women.
Of these, Puerto Rican soprano Melba Ramos as Faustina had the most taxing part and she generally managed it well. Her voice is light and sometimes she struggled to hold her own in ensemble pieces, but that reflects as much the strength of the other soloists. The long Act 2 scene in which she, at first insouciant and then ardent, responds to Hasse's declaration of love was very well paced and she characterised Faustina's changing mood most effectively. Its conclusion in a passionate duet was magnificent and properly appreciated by the audience.
Tenor Johannes Kalpers played the virile young German composer Hasse to the hilt and his enthusiasm and lightness of touch were very persuasive. Seeming to take a little time to warm up in Act 1, he had hit his stride ready for the love duet with Faustina and from then on his contribution was delivered with an accuracy and fire which was a joy to see and hear. Whilst his voice matched Ramos' in lightness, he had no problem projecting it in ensembles.
From the moment that she rose to sing the first number, Magarethe Joswig's Rosana radiated a calm and authority which was deeply impressive. One might not expect these qualities from the youngest character, but the resulting dramatic contrast with Ramos' more flighty and fickle Faustina was tellingly portrayed. The smooth mezzo voice was always warmly secure and this was entirely in character at the opera's close as she conveyed to the crestfallen Marcello her support and belief in him.
To some degree baritone Detlef Roth was underemployed in the role of Marcello himself. His voice possesses a velvety richness which matched Joswig perfectly and which he used to portray his character's age in contrast to the passionate young Hasse. He was powerful in his "Zu viel!" in Act 2 and in the following argument with Hasse his exasperation was nicely stepped up by degrees into violent anger. The Act 3 duet with Rosana was another exercise in subtlety as Marcello slowly realised the true nature of her feelings and his mood lightened.
Overall, then, a fine set of soloists with thoughtful casting highlighting the contrasting pairings of Rosana and Marcello, Faustina and Hasse. Nowak's orchestra played with finesse and precision throughout - the woodwind principals (so important in any Raff score) deserving the special recognition he gave them at the end.
In a concert performance it is difficult to gauge the dramatic effectiveness of the work, but it is interesting structurally. Raff's models are difficult to isolate and perhaps he had none. After all, by this time he was writing operas purely for his own recreation with no realistic hope of performance. He wasn't an inexperienced opera composer - just an unperformed one. With no on-stage chorus, Raff constantly mixes aria, duet, trio and quartet - each identifiable but with the edges blurred to give a more realistic, conversational feel.
Act 2 is arguably both the most musically successful and dramatically perplexing. After slowly building the passion of the love duet between Hasse and Faustina to a rapturous conclusion, Raff inserts an intermezzo for which he re-uses the the Notturno 4th. movement from the "Italian" Suite. Then follows the chorus' sole contribution, an a cappella Ave Maria sung off stage and with no on-stage action. After this extensive break in the action there follows the dramatic scene in which the two men argue as Faustina prays. One wonders whether this mid-Act stasis would work in a staged production.
That said, at just about two hours long, the work certainly did not outstay its welcome and was a delight from start to finish. The audience reaction was one of great and justifiable enthusiasm, led by the Raff illuminati from across Europe and the USA who had gathered in this small Württemberg town. The night belonged to Raff and Volker Tosta, who had made it possible.
The performance was recorded for broadcast and issue on CD is planned. The score is available now from Edition Nordstern.