Lise Lindstrom (Ricke), Jacquelyn Wagner (Kebbel), Sarah van der Kemp (Jane), Ceri Williams (Lene Armuth), Nicole Piccolomini (Una donna), Carlo Ventre (Federico Loewe), Bruno Caproni (Carlo Worms), Markus Brück (Crisogono), Paul Kaufmann (Carlo Teodoro Körner), Ante Jerkunica (Giovanni Filippo Palm), Arutjun Kotchinian (Il Pastore protestante Stapps), Harold Wilson (Luigi Adolfo Guglielmo Lützow), Hung-Wook Lee (Il Capo della Polizia tedesca)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin c. Renato Palumbo p. Kirsten Harms d. Bernd Damovsky and Gabriele Jaenecke.
Capriccio DVD 93518 (140 mins)
As a historical document, this is invaluable: if Tosca and Butterfly have become over-familiar and you are now impervious to them, Franchetti’s opera, marketed by the publisher Ricordi to fill the gap – 1902 - halfway between Puccini’s two blockbusters, will caution you from ever taking Puccini’s genius for granted. You will even regard Giordano and Cilea with renewed admiration.
Germania, launched by Toscanini and Caruso (who recorded excerpts a year after the premiere), was a resounding success, and then quickly vanished. The subject matter cannot have helped: a work espousing German nationalism was not viable post-1914, and the type of subject, recalling Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano from fifty years earlier, has the same patriotic uplift that would previously have acted as a coded message for the Risorgimento struggles. It seems irrelevant for 1902, and incongruous now. Illica’s libretto (like his for Andrea Chénier) is well researched and contains a plethora of historical allusions to place the piece in context. But, where in Chénier the background of the French Revolution is familiar, Napoleon’s occupation of Germany from 1806-13 is not, and the Prologue is almost submerged in a wealth of allusions and names that require footnotes.
The packaging is grossly at fault here. The only programme note dwells on the derivations of the two popular German songs – a hunting song by Weber, and the student song Gaudeamus Igitur - that recur throughout the score. It is actually rather fascinating, but not helpful when there is no synopsis, historical background, or biography of the obscure composer. Even voice types next to the character names would help, as the Prologue is full of cameo roles that are as well sung as the principals, and Franchetti’s musical signposting does not denote character status like a real operatic master would. Subtitles are confusingly presented, unidiomatic and occasionally mistimed, and not present in the extra documentary where we see the director at work in rehearsal. It takes a while to work out that the plot is yet another trope on that eternal triangle: soprano caught between tenor and baritone brothers who are comrades in arms; the gear-changes between personal and political are clumsily managed. The production does not aid comprehension either, though as a stage picture the printing press in the Prologue rendered as a huge sheet of paper, through which emerge the oppressive forces, is striking, but the pastoral idyll of the first act that degenerates into storm-tossed tragedy takes place under unvarying deep blue night light, that leeches colour, passion and interest from the proceedings. The singing is uniformly competent without being insightful or beautiful.
And the music? Franchetti, best known for relinquishing the rights to Tosca, is no mean craftsman: he orchestrates nicely, and has a good line in patriotic uplift. He lacks the pace, dramatic sleight of hand, and memorable melodic profile of his more talented contemporaries and his rhythm is dull and oppressively square. The earlier Cristoforo Colombo, composed for Columbus celebrations in 1892, and exhumed a hundred years later, (a Koch CD with Renato Bruson can still be found) is more vital. It is laudable to look beyond the obvious repertoire choices and recent diversification of the operatic repertory has found buried operatic treasure a-plenty, alas, not here.
© Julian Grant 2008