With the recent issue of Sir Arthur Sullivan's romantic opera Ivanhoe on the Chandos label (reviewed on MusicalCriticism.com here), it occurred to me that I had never gotten around to listening to another recent recording based on the same story: Otto Nicolai's Il Templario. The CPO label issued this live performance from Chemnitz in 2008 some months ago, and – as with Ivanhoe – another fascinating corner of the catalog has now been illuminated. Nicolai was born in eastern Prussia in 1810 and died quite young in Berlin, in 1848. He is now remembered best for his German singspiel Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, but in fact, this was somewhat of an anomaly in his operatic output. He actually began his compositional career in Italy, and produced some half-dozen operas in the Italian bel canto style before taking up successive positions in Vienna and Berlin. Although Die lustigen Weiber was the only German-language opera he completed before his untimely death, it has achieved enduring popularity, while his entire Italian catalog was considered lost until Il Templario was unearthed in 2006. Michael Wittmann discusses the details surrounding this discovery as well as much more information on Nicolai and his career in the wonderfully comprehensive booklet notes to this recording.
By the time Il Templario was premiered in Turin in 1840, the three 'giants' of bel canto had nearly stopped producing new works for Italian stages. Bellini had died several years prior, Rossini had retired from composing operas, and Donizetti was turning his attention abroad to theaters in Vienna and Paris. In the vacuum that remained, Pacini and Mercadante were finally able to soak up some of the limelight, and Verdi was just starting his career, having premiered his first opera Oberto in 1839. Thus, the stage was set for the emergence of an innovative young composer, and Nicolai scored a resounding personal success with Il Templario. Its renown was so immediate, that productions were immediately scheduled for Genoa, Milan, and Trieste that same year, and in Venice, Vienna, Barcelona, Brescia, and Vicenza the year following. No fewer than seventeen productions were given in 1842, and the opera retained its popularity through the late 1860's, making it - alongside Mercadante's La vestale and Pacini's Saffo (both given in Naples, also in 1840) - one of the most lasting and well received Italian operas from this period.
The idea to base the opera on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe apparently came from the impresario of the theater in Turin, and it was charged to Girolamo Marini to distill the narrative into a suitable libretto. English and Scottish themes were very popular topics during the evolution of Romanticism in Italian opera, and Ivanhoe was only one of several works by Scott to be reformulated into operatic plots. Nicolai and Marini had the good sense to pare down the cast list in order to avoid an unworkably complicated libretto (in contrast with Sullivan's version of the story, still a half century off into the future).
Adhering closely to the bel canto conventions of the time, Nicolai opened Act I with the standard succession of arias in order to introduce his central characters (Ivanhoe, Brian, Rowena, and Rebecca), but was rather more structurally innovative in the succeeding acts. In a somewhat unorthodox decision, he gave the most interesting music and confrontations to the low voices, with Brian sung by a baritone and Rebecca by a mezzo-soprano. Most unusually, he closed his opera, not with the standard aria and cabaletta for the soprano heroine, but with a combination duet and death scene for the baritone and mezzo-soprano. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Nicolai was eventually persuaded to re-write the role of Rebecca for soprano at the behest of none other than Giuditta Pasta (a version that has yet to be performed). All four of the principal singers have to confront stringent vocal demands; in keeping with the bel canto conventions, singers were required to have facility with an extensive arsenal of vocal effects from superior breath-control to trills and coloratura to textual coloring and 'acting' with the voice. For Il Templario and all operas from this era, vocal virtuosity was an important ingredient and contributed substantially to the success or failure of the production.
The performance captured on these discs falls a bit short of the ideal, though none of the singers displays less than basic proficiency. This is a 'festival quality' performance in the best sense: the singers are energetic, obviously well-rehearsed, and fully committed as performers. While there is little in the way of vocal glamour – never mind truly individual 'star-quality' – the overall effect is greater than the sum of its individual components, and the distinction of Nicolai's score is faithfully communicated. The choral and orchestral contributions are uniformly excellent, under the dedicated direction of conductor Frank Beermann. The opening sinfonia is a highlight, as are the introductions to Acts 2 and 3. The latter is a particularly inspired moment in the score, beginning with an atmospheric funeral march combined with two-part chorus: first the Templars inciting the burning of Rebecca at the stake, then the women bemoaning the fact that no one will step forward as her champion. Befitting the climax of the story, a wonderful sextet develops in which each of the characters expresses her or his own thoughts – a typical bel canto era device, and wonderfully executed here.
Among the principal roles, the romantic leads, Ivanhoe and Rowena, are somewhat put in the shade by Brian and Rebecca as mentioned above. Soprano Judith Kuhn sings Rowena with an attractive, darkish tone and slightly ungainly coloratura. In the cruelly demanding tenor part, Stanley Jackson gives a committed performance that ultimately wants a slightly meatier vocal amplitude and flashier technical security. Nevertheless, he gets through his high-lying role with reasonably good passagework and fearless ascents into the stratosphere. Nicolai wrote the role of Brian for a proto-Verdian baritone and Hans Christoph Begemann does his best to inhabit the part with a Sherrill Milnes-like swagger, but without the latter's vocal amplitude and technical acumen. Still, he shows good musicality and definitely has the right stylistic instincts most of the time. Mezzo-soprano Tiina Penttinen successfully copes with the rangy tessitura of her role with solid technique and some histrionic flair. A talented singing actress could easily steal the show as Rebecca, and it would be interesting to hear someone like Joyce DiDonato transform this character into the star-vehicle Nicolai must have intended.
As mentioned above, the overall effect of this performance is positive and sheds light on Nicolai's 'Italian years', giving us a more well-rounded picture of his development as a composer. Fans of the bel canto era should thank the CPO label for capturing this live performance and issuing a recording in such excellent sound and with detailed, scholarly notes about both the composer and the opera itself. The singers may not be the stars of tomorrow, but they more than adequately serve the composer's intentions in bringing this long forgotten score to life. It is a recording I will happily add to my collection of early Nineteenth-century rarities and is well worth exploring by anyone interested in this colorful period in opera history.