A really nice surprise
R. Broadhead | Southwestern USA | 01/06/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This recording actually contains 2 performances of the opera Joseph in Egypt by the French composer Etienne Mehul. Both performances omit the spoken parts of the opera and concentrate on the overture plus the sung parts. The first performance was recoreded in Hamburg in 1955 and features the Yugoslavian bass Alexander Welitsch as Jacob, the Swiss tenor Libero de Luca as Joseph, and as Joseph's brothers Horst Gunther, Ursula Zollenkopf, Rolf Kunz, and Gunter Genersch. Although the original score called for all male soloists, Ms. Zollenkopf stars as Joseph's younger brother Benjamin and does a very fine job of it, providing a wonderful female counter to the male soloists. The Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the NWDR are under the direction of Wilhelm Schuchter. The opera is sung in German.
When I purchased this recording, I wasn't certain if either the sound quality would be good or if I would like the music. I was delightfully surprised by both. The quality of the recording is excellent - the orchestra and all soloists come through clearly and dynamically without any distortion whatsoever. And the music is absolutely fantastic. I've found myself listening to this recording over and over and I've yet to tire of it. It is easy to understand why Mehul was so well liked during his time in France, in Germany, and in a number of other countries and just as hard to fathom why he is almost forgotten today. Many of his operas enjoyed immense success in their day (late 1700's to about 1815 when his productivity decreased because of tuberculosis) and were translated into numerous different languages. As far as Joseph in Egypt, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler all conducted it and had immense respect for the imagination and creativity of the composer. There are several solo parts for Joseph, Jacob, and Benjamin (sung by Ms. Zollenkopf)and they are all delightful melodies. I am most engaged by the short romances for Joseph and Benjamin - sweet, emotional and very direct - and the absolutely lovely terzetto for Benjamin, Joseph and Jakob which intermingles the parts of the three soloists in a manner in which many composers attempt but few are this successful. There are also a number of absolutely lovely choruses - not the booming choruses of a Verdi but quieter and more reflective types that are appropriate to the contemplative prayers issued by the captive Israelites. The chorus Gott Israels (O God of Israel) in which Joseph (de Luca) also has a part is particularly captivating. The chorus near the end Lobt den Herrn mit Sang und Saitenklang is very reminiscent of one of the choruses in Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, but Joseph was written in 1806 and the Beethoven in 1811. The choruses are all accompanied by very complex but subtle instrumentation that assists the choir with theme and mood but never overshadows it. In short, this performance of Joseph has fast become my favorite opera.
The second performance was recorded in Stuttgart, also in 1955. It also features Alexander Welitsch as Jacob. Josef Traxel is Joseph and again a woman (Frederike Sailor) is featured as Joseph's younger brother Benjamin. This performance is also sug in German and also omits the spoken parts of the opera as well as several sung parts that the first (Hamburg) performance included. Again the sound quality and performance are excellent, but to my tastes the soloists (Except for Mr. Welitsch) are not quite as good as the Hamburg performance and some of my favorite parts are missing from the second performance.
Also included on this 2 CD set are some selections from Massenet's Werther and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci which I have listened to but honestly did not pay much attention to.
I give this 2 CD set a 4.9 star rating. I would give it 5 stars except I think the inclusion of the Massenet and the Leoncavallo provide some distraction from the real subject matter. I would have been absolutely delighted to have just the 1955 Hamburg performance on one CD.
This opera and its performances are absolutely enjoyable. The music is neither light or heavy and just captivates me from beginning to end. This is a truly beautiful work by an almost forgotten master. Surely Mehul, a man of very humble origins, deserves a better fate!"
Mark Laidler | Melbourne, Australia | 02/24/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a masterpiece of opera by an all but forgotten genius. Do youreself a favour and listen to this great opera with themes and motifs that obviosly inluenced those who followed Mehul. I've probably listened to this ten times since it arrived a coulpe of weeks ago."