- Ernsthafte Oper (Serious Opera) in 3 acts with ballet
- Composer: Jakob Meyerbeer
- Libretto: Professor Alois Schreiber, after the Old Testament (Book of Judges)
- First performed: Hofoper, Munich, 23 December 1812
|SULIMA, Jephta’s daughter||Soprano||Helena Harlas|
|ASMAWETH, Sulima’s lover||Tenor||Georg Weixelbaum|
|TIRZA, Sulima’s servant||Josephine Flerx|
|High Priest||Herr Schwadke|
|Levites, prisoners, warriors||Chorus|
The rediscovery of Meyerbeer’s early operas continues apace. Last year, Naxos published a recording of his first Italian opera, Romilda e Costanza (1817); this year, they have given us his very first opera, Jephtas Gelübde (1812), in a production from Sofia, conducted by Dario Salvi.
Jephtas Gelübde was recorded at Bulgaria Hall in July 2019, and Salvi’s sensitive, elegant recording features a young and promising cast. Sönke Tams Freier, singing Jephta, is a noble bass-baritone in the true German style; soprano Andrea Chudak (Sulima) and tenor Markus Elsäßer (Asmavett) cope well with Meyerbeer’s demanding music; while baritone Laurence Kaladjian (Abdon) is impressive in his Act I aria.
Salvi also recorded a delightful cycle of Auber’s overtures for Naxos, and was recently nominated in the 2022 International Classical Music Awards for his recording of Johann Strauss’s Waldmeister.
At the moment, the Jephta recording is only available to subscribers of Naxos Music Library; it is to be hoped that it will be released for sale to a wider public. This recording is vital for the proper understanding of Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer’s opera is based on an Old Testament story, also treated by Montéclair (Jephté, 1732) and Handel (Jephtha, 1752), and related to the Iphigenia legend (see Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, 1774).
Jephthah the Gileadite, illegitimate son of a harlot, vows that if God gives him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet him”. Jephthah smites the Ammonites and twenty of their cities, “with a very great slaughter… Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.” He returns – and his daughter (Sulima in the opera, nameless in the Bible) runs out to meet him. According to the Old Testament, two months later, “he did with her according to his vow which he had vowed”.
(Rabbis criticise Jephthah for his “inappropriate and reckless” vow, and characterise him as haughty and ignorant. Other Talmudic scholars argue that he simply locked her up for the rest of her life, rather than murdering her.)
Meyerbeer’s treatment is far more humane. His family were leaders of the reformist movement in Prussia, and the opera shows an Enlightened attitude. Sulima’s life is spared at the last moment; the High Priest announces that God does not desire human blood, and prefers love and devoutness.
A subplot provides the necessary romantic interest: Sulima loves the young warrior Asmavett, but the tribal leader Abdon also lusts after her.
Meyerbeer was only 21 when his first opera was performed. The eldest son of a wealthy Prussian Jewish family, he had shown remarkable talents for music at an early age. By the age of nine, the little boy performed piano concerti in public; Leipzig papers predicted a glorious career for the prodigy. He then studied with the Abbé Vogler, regarded as the German master of counterpoint; there Carl Maria von Weber (later famous as the composer of Der Freischütz) was the youth’s fellow pupil and close friend. His oratorio, Gott und die Natur (Berlin, 1811), was praised, and the Grand-Duke of Darmstadt named him his court composer.
But Jephtas Gelübde did not have such a warm reception. According to Meyerbeer scholar Robert Ignatius Letellier, the work was “only a succès d’estime”.
Meyerbeer and his teacher Vogler devised the scenario, then Alois Wilhelm Schreiber, a Heidelberg professor, turned it into a libretto. Schreiber had written the text for Gott und die Natur – and, Fétis (Biographie universelle des musiciens, 1867) remarked:
The work … was more of an oratorio than an opera. Still saturated with scholastic forms, Meyerbeer had put little melodic charm in this composition: it did not succeed.
Meyerbee’s early biographer Blaze de Bury classed it among Meyerbeer’s oratorios; it was “a dramatic work also affecting the style of oratorio, and in which it seemed the young composer was too hasty to want to show the public all he had learned”.
The work was performed at the Munich Hofoper in December 1812 – and withdrawn after two performances. Audiences apparently found the music too academic. “Having learned to compose in the strict ecclesiastical manner of Vogler, he naively transferred this style to the stage,” wrote Barrymore Laurence Scherer. “Unfortunately, only fellow musicians saw its promise; the public was indifferent.”
This music, well suited to the church, was out of place in the theatre. Severe and cold as the liturgical chants of the Roman Catholic faith, the opera produced little effect on the stage, especially at a time when Italian music, in which melody predominates, was the music in fashion.Francis Roch, Le Biographe universel, 1845
But Jephta also has its staunch defenders. Even at the time, the Gesellschaftsblatt für gebildete Stände (30 December 1812) praised it:
A delicate sensibility, united to a profound and mature insight in the workings of the impassioned human heart, is manifested throughout on a grand and elevated style that gives promise of something great in the future.
As early as 1845, Roch believed: “Meyerbeer’s first opera would obtain a much warmer reception from the public [of his day, the 1840s], because the maestro’s willpower and genius have brought us, albeit without our knowledge, to the right point, to judge the beauties of his first style.”
In the 1920s, Edgar Istel argued: “Meyerbeer’s progress to mastership is impossible of conception without the Jephta score.”
Posterity judged differently [from the Gesellschaftsblatt], not even taking the trouble to examine this highly significant youthful work, assuming from its failure to please the public that it was of slight value, and uncritically declaring the opera to be “bombastic”. “scholastic”, and a mere by-product of Vogler’s subversive influence. That this score enfolded seeds for loftiest growth has been perceived by no one since that Munich review.
Now, we can judge for ourselves.
Jephta is an opera that grows on one. At first, it might seem austere, even cold, compared to Meyerbeer’s late works, but each listening reveals new beauties. It is a minor work, of course, but it is a surprisingly attractive score, particularly given its reputation and period.
Nor is it fair to compare it to the great French operas (any more than it would be to compare Oberto to Otello, or Die Feen to Parsifal); the score was written almost twenty years before Robert-le-Diable, a quarter-century before Les Huguenots, and nearly 40 years before Le Prophète. Opera changed much in those two generations – thanks in no small part to Meyerbeer himself.
Jephta isa late Classical opera, written in that 25-year operatic interregnum between the death of Mozart (1791) and the ascension of Rossini (late 1810s); the only opera from that period regularly played today is Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Like many composers’ first works, it builds on its predecessors. Istel and Letellier see the influence of Handel (musical portrayal of the Old Testament), Gluck (the use of the orchestra for psychological profundity), and, unsurprisingly, Vogler (exotic effects, a sophisticated orchestral palette, recurring motifs for characterisation). Perhaps Méhul’s Joseph (1807), too, a then-popular opera-oratorio, is an influence; Heinz Becker noted that the work was “the great experience of [Meyerbeer’s] childhood”. And, of course, Meyerbeer’s favourite composer, Mozart. But the music, as Istel suggests, also points the way to Meyerbeer’s later works. the foreboding of future horror (the sacrifice) is Meyerbeerian, Istel argues: “Here the paw of the later lion is clearly in evidence.”
Already, the young Meyerbeer demonstrates his orchestral virtuosity; he experiments with harmony and texture (notably in the overture and dances) and acoustics (offstage choruses). The prominence of the woodwinds, too – solo passages for oboes and clarinets – is typically Meyerbeerian. Some melodies appear in later works – a sprightly passage in the overture reappears in the Margherita d’Anjou Sinfonia, while a phrase in Asmavett’s aria occurs in “Plus blanche que la blanche hermine” (Les Huguenots).
The overture is one of the most impressive pieces in the score; its ominous power, pizzicato violin effects, contrasting dynamics, and exciting finish look forward 30-odd years to Le Prophète’s enormous overture. It is built around motifs from the triumphal march in Act II, Jephta’s Act III monologue, and a wondering, meditative passage from the Act III prayer.
Act I opens with a chorus of women gathering vines, a pretty genre piece. The ghost of Mozart hangs over the young lovers’ duet, which contains some pretty fioritura canoodling and a tender violincello. Asmavett’s aria is pleasant, although the tenor s challenged by the difficult tessitura; the notes lie high. (That might be one reason why, after the failure of his second Singspiel, Wirt und Gast (Alimelek) (1813), Salieri recommended Meyerbeer go to Italy to learn to write for the human voice – as Handel, Hasse, and Gluck had done before him, and as the young Wagner hoped to do.) Abdon has an impressive vengeance aria, moving from jealous rage through erotic fantasy to fury. “Here,” Istel thought, “flashes out, for the first time, a spark of Meyerbeer’s specific musico-dramatic genius.” Jephta’s homecoming provides the opportunity for an attractive canon, ‘Rosen und Dornen’. The finale contains the Oath (accompanied by drums and DONNER!!!), and the March and Dance of the Warriors ends the act very effectively. Its timpani and trumpets and exotic rhythm anticipate the Prince de Grenade’s theme in Robert-le-Diable; to Istel, it suggested Berlioz.
Act II opens with Sulima’s prima donna scena at her mother’s grave, a dramatic display piece with a bright C major chorus. (The dead mother is a motif of the French operas.) The act also contains a trio, Asmavett’s cavatina, and another duet for the lovers. The nearly 20-minute finale shows Meyerbeer already thought on the massive architectural scale of the French grand opéras. It comprises a ballet, a tenor allegro con fuoco with chorus accompaniment, a chorus of young women, and Jephta’s romance. It ends with a superb stretta; its tripartite chorus writing and crescendo of tension suggests Acts II and III of Les Huguenots,the Cathedral Scene of Le Prophète, and the Council Scene of Vasco de Gama. “In this grand finale, the dramatic genius of the musician Meyerbeer for the first time found full scope” (Istel).
Act III opens with Jephta’s monologue, the opera’s emotional climax. The father is torn between his love for his daughter, and what he sees as his religious duty to kill her; at the end, he resolves that his daughter shall live. Letellier admires it as “a dark and deeply affecting psychological study, remarkably perceptive for a first opera”, while Istel considered it a significant early use of leitmotivs (one symbolising Sulima, the other Jephta’s desperate resolve). “Here, perhaps for the first time before Wagner, the psychological development of a struggling soul is musically depicted in truly dramatic fashion by the dismemberment and distortion of motives and veiled allusion to them.” Wagner couldn’t have heard it, but it foreshadows the Flying Dutchman’s great scene, “Die Frist ist um”.
Next comes Sulima’s aria, influenced by Mozart; she is as pure and determined as Donna Anna. Then an excellent trio, a depiction of static, stoic resignation; it is launched by Asmavett’s impassioned allegro agitato phrase, and contains a capella vocal writing (one of Meyerbeer’s favourite devices – see the trio in Robert-le-Diable). Much of the Finale is beautiful, although this is where the opera comes closest to oratorio. It opens with a sombre Trauermarsch; contains a women’s chorus like a fresco of lament – it somehow sounds very Jewish; a quartet hymn of priests at the altar (accompanied by harp); a general prayer of supplication; and ends with another prayer, of rejoicing.
According to Letellier, the work concerns the conflict between paternal love and devotion to country, and examines the demands of faith, religion, and sacrifice – themes Meyerbeer would return to in Les Huguenots and Le Prophète decades later. Thematically, too, Meyerbeer’s preoccupation with the outsider is there from the start. Jephthah is disowned by his country, despite his nobility and courage, because he is illegitimate; the people drive him from his childhood home, sneer at him, and remind him of the disgrace, “the stigma of his birth”. Meyerbeer, a Jew in a Gentile country, was acutely sensitive to Richesse (anti-Semitism). His later works concern exiles (the Italian operas), religious minorities (Les Huguenots), the underclass (Le Prophète), and the racial ‘other’ (Vasco de Gama).
- Francis Roch, “Meyerbeer (Giacomo)”, Le Biographe universel : revue générale biographique et littéraire, ed. M.E. Pascallet, 1845
- Blaze de Bury, Meyerbeer et son temps, Paris : M. Lévy, 1865
- François-Joseph Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens, VI, 2ème édition, Paris: Firmin Didot, 1867
- Edgar Istel, “Meyerbeer’s Way to Mastership: Employment of the Modern Leading-Motive before Wagner’s Birth” (1826), published in Robert Ignatius Letellier (ed.), Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Reader, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007
- Heinz Becker, “Giacomo Meyerbeer On the Occasion of the Centenary of his Death” (1964), published in Letellier, Reader, op. cit.
- Barrymore Laurence Scherer, “Meyerbeer: the Man and his Music” (1978), published in Letellier, Reader, op. cit.
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays, Ashgate, 2008
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, article accompanying Naxos recording, 2021