World Premiere of an Abandoned Liszt Opera in Weimar – 170 Years Later
Under its Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the Staatskapelle Weimar will give the world premiere of a rediscovered Italian opera Sardanapalo by Franz Liszt – which was left incomplete and has lain largely forgotten in a German archive for almost 100 years. ‘The name of the composer Franz Liszt has never been associated with Italian opera’, Karabits explains. ‘I’m delighted to be conducting the premiere of Sardanapalo in Weimar. This discovery should open a new page not only in Liszt’s musical heritage but also in the music history of the 19th century.’ Act I of the opera survives complete. This will be presented in a concert version.
The music has been resurrected by David Trippett, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. He discovered the opera manuscript was legible more than ten years ago, a century after it had been catalogued and largely forgotten in the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv in Weimar. ‘The music that survives is breath-taking – a unique blend of Italianate lyricism and adventurous harmonic turns and side-steps’, Trippett explains. ‘There is nothing else quite like it in the operatic world. It is suffused with Liszt’s characteristic style, but contains elements from Bellini and Meyerbeer, alongside glimmers of Wagner.’
On 19 and 20 August 2018, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Charles Castronovo will lead the cast in the world premiere of this notable work in Weimar, where Liszt composed it and where he served as Kapellmeister of the Hofkapelle, today’s Staatskapelle Weimar.
The libretto, based on Lord Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus, is topical. It tells the story of Sardanapalo, King of ancient Assyria (modern-day Syria and Northern Iraq). He is a peace-loving monarch, more interested in revelry and women than politics and war. He deplores violence and brutality, and, perhaps naively, he believes in the innate goodness of humankind, but is overthrown by rebels and burns himself alive with his lover, amid scents and spices, in a great inferno. Liszt’s opera focusses on the love between king Sardanapalo and his favourite concubine, Mirra, who seeks to persuade the king to go to war to defend his realm, against his better judgment.
Known only to a handful of Liszt scholars, the manuscript – with much of its music written in shorthand and only one act completed – was assumed to be fragmentary, often illegible and consequently indecipherable. However, after Trippett spent the last three years working critically on the manuscript, including using Liszt’s own instructions for orchestrating the score, the music can be heard for the first time. As the Cambridge academic explained: ‘Fortunately, Liszt left just enough information to retrieve what was evidently the continuous musical conception he had at the time. We will never know why exactly he abandoned his work on the opera. It seems Liszt was not satisfied with the libretto for Acts II and III.’ Trippett adds: ‘I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that Act I is resurfacing in the 21st century. But I like to think he would have smiled on it.’
The world premiere concert performance will be broadcast on Deutschlandfunk Kultur, and a recording will be released with audite.
A critical edition of the music will be published by Editio Musica Budapest (Universal Music Publishing) in 2019, and the underlying research will appear in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association later this year.