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8.660231-32 - KEISER, R.: Fredegunda [Opera] (Munich Neue Hofkapelle, C. Hammer)
Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739)
Fredegunda - Dora Pavlíková, Soprano
The Hamburg Opera and Reinhard Keiser’s Fredegunda
This was the observation by the English music historian and composer Charles Burney on his travels through Germany in 1773. Burney’s assessment would have applied to most European states at that time. Absolute rulers satisfied their urge for self-portrayal by building magnificent residences and the establishment of an extensive court. Above all, the princely court musical establishment was an acknowledgment of the possession of power, and the operas mounted there were part of festivities lasting several days and unsurpassed as spectacles. Many a prince was prepared to spend a vast amount of money on such diversions. He would employ renowned Italian musicians and show, in singing, a predilection for castrati who, because of their high fees, drove not a few courts to the edge of ruin.
Over the course of time the growing self-assurance of cities demanded a similarly appropriate representation. For that the institution of opera was a tried and tested vehicle. It complied with the need for the grandiose and the theatrical, for diversion and amusement. Unlike at court, people in the cities also pursued economic interests: opera was to be worth investing in and was to be run at a profit; from now on a large number of people had access to opera by paying for it. This new form of organization called for stringent management in order to keep things going.
The Hamburg Opera at the Goose-market succeeded in achieving this aim for longer than any other municipal opera house at that time—more than six decades. Many well-known composers, musicians and poets became involved in the artistic shaping of the enterprise. The high musical standards, the varied bill of fare and, last but not least, the technical stage conditions which were outstanding for their time, attracted a large part of the population of Hamburg to its glittering presentations. From Burney’s comments it is clear how much the economic and social conditions in German cities had deteriorated in the 35 years since the demise of the Hamburg opera. Now there was no longer any demand for a public opera house. Anyone, though, half a century before who wished “to seek out music in Germany” had to go to Hamburg to visit the Opera at the Goose-market; it was famous beyond the city’s boundaries.
In principle, the Hamburg Opera was open to all. Most visitors to the opera were members of the sophisticated middle classes, but the upper classes, including graduates, councillors, foreign traders, factory owners, as well as members of princely and royal houses, all regularly attended its operatic performances. At the same time ambassadors and diplomats living in Hamburg also came. Although to a large degree the operatic business profited from a sophisticated public, it was members of the nobility with rank and standing who, by purchasing a box, made the most significant contribution to the finances. The popular conception of the Hamburg Opera as “the people’s opera” is, for the most part, epitomized less by the predominance of the bourgeoisie than by the nature of its business. The enterprise was tied neither to specific productions nor to a specific social function. So it happened that the whole opera house could be rented out to individuals. Any citizen who had sufficient funds at his disposal could, in this way, through sponsoring performances, raise himself to a high level in society. Because of this practice, many groups of people saw in the institution of opera support for the feudal system, and tried to put an end to it.
From the beginning the Hamburg Opera put on German productions of French plays and of Italian operas (preferably from Venice). The repertoire extended from earthy farces to substantial opere serie. In the process it was customary to present a libretto in different versions. Often in Hamburg they did not go back to the original music, but performed editions of it made by neighbouring courts such as those in Brunswick, Hanover or even London. The musical performances, together with the décor and stage machinery, were an especial attraction, but, for the most part following a première, revivals were given only occasionally. It was not until the 1720s that repeat performances of the same opera became the rule.
Of the works which were presented in the first four decades of the Hamburg Opera’s existence, until its demise in 1738, only two were still given again and again: Der Carneval in Venedig (The Carnival in Venice) from 1707, based on a Low German text by the Cuno brothers, set to music by Reinhard Keiser and other composers, and the musical play Fredegunda of 1715, drawn from an Italian libretto by Francesco Silvani and also with music by Reinhard Keiser.
Historical subject matters were extremely popular at that time. There was a concentration on eccentric personalities of Roman antiquity, with whose entanglements a contemporary public could immediately identify. Libretti which took up a part of Germanic or, in the case of Fredegunda, Franconian history, were rare and were regarded as exotic. Although the contemporary Johann Heinrich Zedler, in his Universal Lexicon, stresses that “...for the historians who have dealt with Franconian subjects, she (Fredegunda) was described as one of those most depraved women whose ambition, whose lecherousness and bloodthirstiness there are not words enough to express”, cruelty and murderous activities are not at the centre of the action in Silvani’s libretto. What is emphasized much more here are the political consequences of Fredegunda’s striving for power which, still in contrast to the Franconian historians, is condemned for being excessively ambitious morally. In order to display the dark side of her character Silvani makes Fredegunda also a sorceress and by doing so turns her into an outsider in society.
If the Italian librettist wants to criticize the excessive ambition of the Venetian nobility of his time, in the foreword of the German version by Johann Ulrich von König can be found the general comment on the “proper aim of a play…which should apply for all time, that vice is punished, but virtue rewarded”—yet one can accept that the Hamburg public knew how to relate the action of the opera to contemporary events. König’s style is pithy and precise, presents the action clearly, and illustrates the agitation of the characters. By his own admission, König only made use of puns and high-flown language “in order to conform to what the people wanted, because the people otherwise believe one cannot write penetratingly or, as they say, in a high-flown way, as soon as they understand what they read.” The events on the stage were brought out, however, above all through the music of Reinhard Keiser, the famous musician who was of service in so many different ways to the Hamburg Opera. For four years, from the age of 29, he took complete control of the opera house. For a long time he also carried out the rôle of Kapellmeister. For two decades his works dominated the schedules, until at the beginning of 1718 he turned his back on the venture as a result of its financial collapse and left Hamburg. Three years later he returned to the Hanseatic city once more and was again active for the Hamburg Opera. In the meantime his position as Kapellmeister was taken over by Georg Philipp Telemann. In 1728 Keiser became Kantor of Hamburg Cathedral and thereafter concentrated on the composition of church music; he lived for barely a year after the closure of the Opera at the Goose-market. His contemporary, Johann Adolph Scheibe, has given a striking summary of his work: “Keiser’s movements are galant, much loved and display all the passions to the power of which the human heart is most subjected. In spite of the enormous number of his works, he has never repeated himself. Each time he has written singable, natural, expressive music anew. No composer could have achieved so easily such a large number of operas and other large vocal works; for of the former alone more than a hundred have flowed from his pen. Nevertheless his inventions never want for fire and tenderness.”
King Chilperich waits for Princess Galsuinde, his bride. Fredegunda, Chilperich’s lover, appears unexpectedly and reproaches him bitterly for the forthcoming marriage. Chilperich tries to pacify Fredegunda: he is to marry Galsuinde for reasons of state. Fredegunda, however, who herself craves the royal crown, is not happy with his explanation. As Chilperich falls weakly into her arms, Galsuinde and Chilperich’s brother Sigibert enter. Galsuinde struggles to maintain her composure. Sigibert knows how to take advantage of the situation and declares his love for Galsuinde. He confides to her that, if she were to marry him instead of Chilperich, he would dispute his brother’s right to the throne. Galsuinde is outraged by Sigibert’s plan.
Fredegunda and her secret lover Landerich watch Bazina and Hermenegild light-heartedly enjoying themselves together. In order to deepen the rift between Chilperich and Galsuinde they intend to set the two lovers against each other and to describe the shameful insult to Galsuinde. Hermenegild reacts as expected. He fights on his sister’s behalf and repudiates Bazina as the daughter of the man who has publicly snubbed Galsuinde. For her part, Bazina is warned by Fredegunda no longer to hold on to her love for Hermenegild, since he now opposes her father and has thoughtlessly spurned her love. Bazina only pretends to act on it.
Galsuinde is overwhelmed at having brought about Chilperich’s rejection and Sigibert berates her further. Just as Bazina raises her hopes of being able to win Chilperich over, Hermenegild enters in a rage and expatiates on Chilperich’s relationship with Fredegunda. Galsuinde tries to calm her brother down and leads him to understand that she will fight for her rights, not with raw power, but by other means. The king, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels in love with Fredegunda. In his lovelorn state he intends to see Galsuinde and Sigibert exchange words of love. Fredegunda confirms Chilperich’s suspicion and professes that both affairs are known already to the whole court. Chilperich plots revenge. When Galsuinde calls on the king, to obtain an audience with him, he gives vent to his anger. Hermenegild hurries to help Galsuinde and wants to overpower Chilperich, but is prevented from doing so by Landerich who, despite his affair with Fredegunda, is still loyal to the king, and Hermenegild is carried off to a mine.
Chilperich proclaims Fredegunda as his queen. The wedding ceremony can begin but Galsuinde unexpectedly seizes the moment and keeps on and on at Chilperich. He forces her, however, to be a servingmaid and orders her to serve his mistress. At this further humiliation of Galsuinde, Sigibert loses control and wants to put an end to his brother’s tyrannical behaviour. Once again Landerich defends the king, and takes Sigibert prisoner. Fredegunda is upset that, amid the confusion, Chilperich has forgotten about signing the wedding contract. She gives vent to her anger and engages in a heated battle of words with Galsuinde. Suddenly Landerich appears. Fredegunda wants to hear no more from him, but Landerich’s moving description of his agonies of love could win her round. When Chilperich suddenly enters the room, Fredegunda can’t prevent herself and Landerich being discovered.
Galsuinde and Bazina are looking for Sigibert and Hermenegild. The meeting they desire, however, proceeds differently from what was hoped: Hermenegild stands by his decision to avoid Chilperich’s daughter. Galsuinde and Sigibert profess their love for each other but, in the current circumstances, cannot believe in its fulfilment. In the meantime Fredegunda waits longingly for Landerich. But instead of Landerich, Chilperich presents himself. Fredegunda inadvertently addresses him by the name of her lover; Chilperich is aghast and beside himself. When Landerich reaches the appointed place Fredegunda tells him about her fatal mistake. She asks him to get rid of Chilperich before he can take revenge. Fredegunda herself swears to undertake the forthcoming battle, but she must then find out that Landerich, against her plans, wants Sigibert to succeed to the throne.
Chilperich has withdrawn. He rejects the idea of fleeing, as Bazina recommended, and puts himself in the hands of fate. Having been freed from prison by Landerich, Hermenegild and Sigibert are already storming the king’s apartments to overthrow Chilperich. They are stalled by Galsuinde, who has finally succeeded, together with Bazina, in breaking the resistance of the insurgent. Galsuinde takes up her rightful place at Chilperich’s side; peace is sealed by them all. Fredegunda is as good as her word and stages her own triumphant exit.
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