A Third Catarina Cornaro Opera: Not Halévy or Donizetti but Franz Lachner, and It’s Good!

Opera lovers may think they have never heard any music by Franz (or Franz Paul) Lachner. But, if they’ve enjoyed Cherubini’s Medea, they almost surely have heard – and been stirred by – long passages that Lachner composed for a production in Frankfurt in 1855, in German, to replace the many pages of dramatically crucial spoken dialogue. Modern performances and recordings of Medea mostly use the all-sung Lachner version, translated into Italian. (Cherubini wrote the work in French and entitled it Médée.) The great music critic Andrew Porter once pointed out that Maria Callas’s famous recordings of Medea (in Italian) are most searingly memorable in passages where she is emoting to music by Lachner, not Cherubini. With this first-ever release of Lachner’s Catharina Cornaro, we can see how accomplished an opera composer he was on his own, without any assist from an admired predecessor.

Franz Lachner (1803-90) was the most prominent of three composer-brothers born in Bavaria in the early nineteenth century. Franz met Beethoven, was a friend of Schubert, and became, in time, the head of the court musical establishment in Munich, including its opera theater. Record companies have made available, since around the late 1980s, at least nine discs of instrumental works by Franz, plus an oratorio (Oedipus Rex). Also two CDs with instrumental works by Ignaz, and another two with instrumental works by brother Vinzenz.

Franz Lachner: Catharina Cornaro
Franz Lachner: Catharina Cornaro

The present recording is the first ever of Franz Lachner’s Catharina Cornaro (1841), an opera based on a free German adaptation of the libretto that was put together for Halévy‘s La Reine de Chypre, which received its first performance a few weeks after the Lachner. I found Halévy’s opera remarkably imaginative and effective in its world-premiere recording. (My review here summarizes the plot.) Donizetti, always on the hunt for a stageworthy story and vivid characters, composed a Caterina Cornaro in 1842-44, using an Italian adaptation of the same French libretto. Recordings, whether commercial or not, abound, with such major singers as Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer, Margherita Rinaldi, and Julia Migenes in the title role. There’s also a fine Opera Rara recording conducted by David Parry (2013).

Lachner’s style was, in general, more Classical-sounding than that of Halévy or Donizetti, as his associations with Beethoven and Schubert would suggest. Still, there is plenty of energy here, and much melodiousness. I think the work would come across well in a smallish theater – perhaps in a music school with a strong opera department. There are a number of sonorous choruses, including a final, hymnlike farewell after the king of Cyprus dies of poisoning. Lachner writes expertly for the orchestra, saving the brass and percussion for moments of special importance. There are several lovely wedding marches and choruses in Act 3 (for the wedding of Catharina and the king of Cyprus) that Wagner may have had in mind when composing Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.

The vocal lines are much less ornate than in Italian operas of around the same time. Still, Catharina and Marco Venero, the man she truly loves but is not allowed to marry, get numerous short bursts of coloratura, much as in, say, “Leise, leise, fromme Weise,” in Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Lachner, no doubt profiting from his extensive experience as an opera conductor, displays a keen sense of pacing. Much of the opera moves at a moderate speed, but shifts of tempo, mode, dynamics, and instrumental figuration sections give welcome contrast and point up crucial moments in the drama. Nothing sounds dreary or gray. Italian “folk” color appears at the beginning of Act 2, with a chorus of gondoliers. (The opera takes place mainly in Venice; only Act 4 is in Cyprus.) A memorably menacing, highly rhythmic motive announces the arrival of the despicable Onofrio in Act 1. I wonder if Wagner had it in mind when composing the similar music for the arrival of Hunding in Act 1 of Die Walküre. Some interestingly yearning, “searching” phrases in the entr’acte to Act 4 suggest a bit of influence from Berlioz.

The one oddity that I noticed is that Lachner often has a singer repeat a line of the libretto numerous times. True, extensive repetition of text also occurs in near-contemporaneous operas by Bellini and Donizetti. But those composers often vary the note values, introducing many short notes, sung on a single vowel, as a cadence approaches. Thus, the words are, in a sense, dissolved into moments of sensuous vocality. Lachner’s more consistently syllabic setting makes the repetition of words harder to ignore. The libretto’s over-reliance on rhymed couplets exacerbates the problem. Wagner would, of course, create a new model for opera by largely avoiding end-rhyme and by turning his vocal lines into free declamation over a quasi-symphonic orchestral part.

One stylistic observation: Lachner’s phrase structure here is very square, as is true of much music of the 1840s. The tyranny of the four-bar phrase, though, is greatly tempered by Lachner’s keen sense for harmonic and rhythmic variety within a phrase. I should also mention that the moments of arioso-like orchestrally accompanied recitative are among the strongest parts of the work, making clear what an advance it was for German opera to shed its longtime reliance on spoken dialogue. This is of course not to deny that some marvelous spoken-dialogue works – mainly in the lighter operatic genres – would continue to be written (for example, by Johann Strauss, Jr., Franz Lehár, and Kurt Weill.)

I am not the only critic to have been pleasantly surprised by the high quality of Lachner’s music here: see the quotations from Gramophone and the UK magazine Opera here, where you can also listen to the beginning of each track.

Catharina Cornaro held the stage in Munich for decades. The unstaged concert performance heard here (from October, 12, 2012) constituted the work’s first revival since 1903. Much praise goes to Volker Tosta for preparing the edition. (He did the same for the recording of the aforementioned Halévy opera.) I noticed gratifyingly little audience noise, and the engineers carefully removed any applause.

Most of the singers give near-constant pleasure. Kristiane Kaiser and Daniel Kirch sing with solid tone and good understanding of the changing situations. Kirch’s coloratura is slightly more labored than Kaiser’s. In one number (and only one) – an offstage serenade – he is consistently below pitch. A singer often has trouble hearing the orchestra (in this case a harp in the pit) when standing offstage, or even far upstage. This one number should have been re-recorded.

Simon Pauly, as Catharina’s uncle, uses his caressingly beautiful baritone voice well to put the text across. (He has sung such roles as Papageno and Marcello at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.) Mauro Peter is an elegant, lyric tenor, perfect for the innocent, duped King of Cyprus.

Christian Tschelebiew, by contrast, has a slow, wide wobble. A certain ugliness might seem appropriate to the nasty Onofrio, who schemes (successfully), for political reasons, to force Catharina to marry the king rather than Marco. But, for me, his singing is tiresome. A young Samuel Ramey in this part would have scared the other characters (and the listener) far more effectively.

The Munich orchestra and chorus, led by the experienced opera specialist Ralf Weikert, perform with high skill. (Weikert has recorded numerous operas, including three by Rossini.) The sound quality is lovely, a tribute to the engineers and Munich’s wondrous Prinzregenten Theater. Florian Heurich’s excellent booklet essay is well translated, as is the libretto.

Here’s hoping we might soon get a chance to know Lachner’s three other operas: Die Bürgschaft (1828), Alidia (1839), and Benvenuto Cellini (1849, eleven years after Berlioz’s opera that bears the same title). It is high time to discover worthy works that have been rejected for over a century because they were highly traditional, rather than progressive and original like those of Verdi (after his early period), Wagner, and Bizet.

Ralph P. Locke[*]

Franz Lachner: Catharina Cornaro
Kristiane Kaiser (Catharina), Daniel Kirch (Marco), Mauro Peter (King Jakob II), Simon Pauly (Andrea Cornaro), Christian Tschelebiew (Onofrio, Venetian senator). Munich Radio Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Chorus, cond. Ralf Weikert.
CPO 777 812-2 [2 CDs] 152 minutes

Above: Kristiane Kaiser [Photo © Shirley Suarez]

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

[*]Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His reviews appear in various online magazines, including The Arts Fuse , NewYorkArts, Naxos Musicology International (for subscribers to Naxos Music Library), and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.