Even merchants want to laugh: Eva Maria Hockmayr stages Telemann’s opera "Emma and Eginhard" at the Berlin State Opera.
Gyula Orendt as Charlemagne and Robin Johannsen as his daughter Emma in Telemann’s "Emma and Eginhard". Picture: Monika Rittershaus/Staatsoper
There was something to celebrate back then in Hamburg in 1728. For 50 years, the merchants and councillors of the Free and Hanseatic City had afforded themselves their own opera. They had already built it to celebrate. Namely themselves.
They wanted to hear the music of their time, Italian as well as French, with texts in German, so that they could talk sensibly at home about this modern art of the wide world. In 1721, they had brought the 40-year-old Georg Philipp Telemann from Magdeburg to the city from Frankfurt. They could have had Johann Sebastian Bach, who tried hard for this well-paid position, but Telemann seemed better suited for their predominantly secular purposes.
They were probably right. And now, on the 50th anniversary of the world’s first German opera, he really showed what he could do. Merchants also want to laugh, and so Telemann and his lyricist Christoph Gottlieb Wend fell back on a joke that has been told in all sorts of variations since the Middle Ages: In the middle of winter, a young woman carries her lover out of the house on her back so that he won’t leave any tracks in the snow.
But unfortunately, the father is looking out the window. This father, according to legend, was Charlemagne, the founder of the first European-Christian empire, who is still glorified today.
Court culture as a mirror of the merchants
The Brothers Grimm later included the story in their collection. Telemann and Wend, on the other hand, built around this scene an unabridged universal drama at least four hours long, in which pretty much everything that was dear to the merchants’ hearts occurs. They are allowed to feel like descendants of Charlemagne and mirror themselves in his court.
It is about war and peace, rule and intrigue, affairs, love and jealousy, comically and tragically so colorfully mixed that the two authors felt the role of a court jester was necessary, who tells the people in the hall how it is all connected. For the Berlin State Opera at the Schillertheater, Eva-Maria Hockmayr (direction), Nina von Hessen (stage) and Julia Rosler (costumes) have developed a congenial, modern version of this festival play of Hanseatic self-confidence.
Several interlocking interiors are set up on the revolving stage, splintering the medieval courtyard of Aachen as if in a kaleidoscope. Window fronts allow views into the depths. Public and private rooms alternate, and a rumpus room is also included. The stately furniture is reminiscent of the 18th century, the clothes range from the Middle Ages to the present day.
Tired of the war against the Saxons, Gyla Orendt as Charlemagne begins this journey through the ages. The choir sings "Die Waffen an die Wande", already the stage turns and we are standing in the office of the Governing Mayor of Berlin. The gentlemen in suits are having a coalition crisis.
The wrong lover
Then the women come into play, Karl gives crown and coat to his court jester and just watches until he is needed again at the end, because then he is the central figure of a real tragedy. He has seen Robin Johannsen, his daughter Emma, as she pulls away with Nikolay Borchev, his secretary Enighard, this pale man with glasses.
In Hockmayr’s work, they float away, tightly entwined on a rope, into the stage sky, blown by snowflakes. This is just one of the many beautiful, ironic images of this theater. After that, it’s back to the meeting in the office. In crown and coat, Orendt now has two souls in his chest: the monarch and the father, execution or marriage. The father wins because forgiveness is more Christian than decapitation.
This is probably how respectable merchants see it, but they have no illusions about the state of the world. Telemann lets them hear a washed-up general rave about the craft of war in such a way that IS jihadists of today look like good choirboys. "Splitting heads" is the least of it.
Shocking at times, always entertaining, and in an admittedly somewhat conservative way, this play is always wise to life. Whether it was a good idea of the director that men have to crawl under women’s skirts all the time to look at them from below is a question one can ask. There is no question, however, that it was worthwhile to dig up this work.
Today it is assumed that Telemann wrote about 50 operas. Only a few have survived. It may be that "Emma and Eginhard" is one of his best. One can hear extremely expressive, original melodies, harmonic boldness, beautiful instrumental parts. The fact that so much in the performance, which was cut down to about three hours, sounds rather uniform and schematic is not due to Teleman, but to Rene Jacob’s way of supposedly historical music-making, which has meanwhile frozen into routine.
It all sounds the same because everything is played the same way, always with sharp violins, over-hard accents and bouncing bass lines. The Academy of Early Music can do this in their sleep.
Singing according to the textbook
Singers, however, quite a few of them from the ensemble of the State Opera, have audible difficulties. They want to go further, to sing more freely than Jacobs allows them. They don’t want to cackle every coloratura with staccato, they want to let their voices resonate, and to adapt the sound to the expression instead of the textbook.
Towards the end, they dare more and more, freeing the very important composer Telemann at least a little from the dictatorship of so-called early music. Thus it sounds better and better the longer the long evening lasts, and in the end so well that the premiere applause was unanimous and very well deserved.