Emma di Resburgo: Meyerbeer with kilts

I’m always excited to hear new things, which is how I found myself at a concert performance of Meyerbeer’s 1819 opera Emma di Resburgo at the Konzerthaus last night.  Only in concert, so, sadly, no kilts, actually.  But if you had played me any bit of this opera without identification–hell, any scene–I probably would have been perfectly secure in calling it Rossini (good luck finding a recording of this opera, though, there isn’t one in print).  This resemblance isn’t a bad thing, though, and while dramatically speaking I’m not sure if this sucker would hold up to staging very well, it’s got its musical moments.

It helped that Vivica Genaux was on hand with polished and exciting singing.  And also Simone Kermes, who provides a kind of entertainment that is all her own.

Meyerbeer, Emma di Resburgo.  Konzerthaus, 7/11/10.  In concert, conducted by Andreas Stoehr with moderntimes_1800 (orchestra), Wiener Singakademie, Simone Kermes (Emma), Vivica Genaux (Edemondo), Thomas Walker (Norcesto), Manfred Hemm (Olfredo), Lena Belkina (Etelia), Martin Vanberg (Donaldo)

If you liked I puritanti, La donna del Lago, or Lucia di Lammermoor, you’ll love Emma di Resburgo!  It’s another Scottish opera with feuding clans, honor, and betrayal.  I didn’t get my head around the plot terribly well, and can’t find a synopsis on the internet in any language.  But basically the leading characters are Edmund (Edemondo, mezzo pants role), who is falsely believed to have killed his own father; Emma, Edmund’s wife (soprano), who is also in hiding and together they try to redeem his reputation; their son Elwin (Etelia, mezzo pants role); Norcester, Edemondo’s nephew, who got the title after his father actually killed Edemondo’s father (Norcesto, tenor); and the wise avuncular bass who helps everyone out, Olfred (Olfredo, don’t call him Al).  The truth wins in the end, but only after several twists.  Maybe I shouldn’t knock the plot, because I don’t really understand it, but it seems like a lot of exposition for a relatively meager dramatic payoff, and none of the characters are memorable.   A staging would probably help clarify the events, but I’m not convinced it would make them interesting.

The surplus of setup doesn’t prevent Meyerbeer from composing some really exciting and atmospheric music, though.  This is not a period of music where I have a lot of expertise, but to me it sounded like pure Rossini opera seria: big set piece arias full of coloratura, lots of dramatic choruses (the choruses in this opera are really good), recitative taking care of the plot, and some big finale blocks (and some other big scenic blocks too, most memorably the judgement scene in Act 2, though I never quite figured out how Edemondo ended up on trial).  Some highlights are Emma’s harp-accompanied entrance aria, an impressive canon in the Act 1 finale, and Edemondo’s epic bravura Act 2 aria. 

Historically, this opera was a major early-career success for Meyerbeer, immensely popular at its premiere and subsequently performed all over Europe (it’s from 1819, Il crociato in Egitto is from 1824 and Robert le diable 1831), and it did wonders for his fame and fortune.  But it doesn’t seem to prefigure Meyerbeer’s later career very well.  It’s more interesting for its own virtues than it is as an early work by a historically important composer.  And has any composer’s star fallen further than Meyerbeer’s?  Considering his current popularity, maybe this lack of resemblance is actually an asset.

Andreas Stoehr led a performance with a historically informed orchestra and a cast experienced in 18th-century music.  In one way this is an argument for the opera as an antique opera seria, on the other it’s just common sense given its musical language and demands.  I doubt anyone involved had performed the score before, but you couldn’t tell from Stoehr’s confident and well-paced conducting or most particularly from Vivica Genaux’s authoritative, virtuosic Edemondo–who really seems more the central character than Emma.  The role seems to sit a little low for her, but she gave a dramatically heated, musically precise performance with absolutely dazzling coloratura that barely seemed “in concert.”  She has some funny-looking vocal technique that involves her jaw in unusual ways, but whatever it is it seems to be producing good results.

Simone Kermes is artist who is exceedingly difficult to take seriously, but equally difficult to dismiss.  She sailed on in a gigantic tulle confection of a dress that resembled a wedding cake in mourning, her head dwarfed by an enormous pile of curly red hair.  Unlike everyone else, who used a music stand, she held her music, which seemed to constrain her usual dance moves a bit, but only sometimes.  I have to describe this because it was quite a sight.  Vocally she bills herself as a dramatic coloratura, which seems like an overstatement–her voice can’t be larger than Damrau’s–but she can let it rip when she needs to (though it ain’t always pretty).  Her tone is rather thin, and her phrasing tends too often to breathy mannerisms.  But she can work the coloratura, and has a certain charisma and panache that makes her hard to ignore.  She has nothing like Genaux’s dramatic specificity, but she’s intense.  However, she also seems deeply crazy.

Thomas Walker as Norcestro was an actual Scot in this Scottish opera, and with a careful lyric tenor sounded accurate and tasteful but a bit bloodless.  Manfred Hemm in the bass role of Olfredo has a somewhat Germanic edge to his sound, but did well by the music.  Lena Belkina charmed in the small role of Etelia, reduced to recitative exposition for most of the opera, but sang a lovely short aria towards the end.

While hearing this opera with historically informed orchestra is a cool experience, the typographically odd moderntimes_1800 sounded scrappy.  The usual HIP issues of wind intonation and squawks were joined by a lot of iffy ensemble in the strings, especially compared to my luxe alarm clock, the Royal Concertgebouw, that morning.  But they produced a merry, vibrato-free racket, and hearing music of this period with natural horns and all that is more or less worth it.  The Wiener Singerakademie sounded excellent, though I would have appreciated a more antiphonal effect out of the divided choruses.

If you are interested in hearing this performance for yourself, it will be broadcast on December 4 at 7:30 Central European Time on Ö1, which can be heard online here.

I got a rush ticket in the fourth row so here are some decent if still blurry bows photos for a change…

Hi, concertmaster!
Standing from left: Manfred Hemm (partly out of frame), Martin Vanberg,
Thomas Walker, Lena Belkina, Simone Kermes, Vivica Genaux
She’s looking away, but this is for the dress.

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  1. Wonderful review, but frustrating because I read it too late to catch the broadcast. Did anyone out there record it?
    Meyerbeer Fan.

  2. try joining yahoo group 'lyricoperatrading' where you can find a recording of the broadcast

  3. Not feuding clans, actually, as this is set in the Scottish border country "at the time of the Norman Conquest" – which actually took place elsehere. Kilts would have been inappropriate, as they are for "Lucia", set in Berwickshire.

    At the moment I'm listening to the recording on BBC Radio 3 and enjoying it.