Have you ever asked yourself “What if Liszt had written an opera?”. I hadn’t either. But he did start one; Sardanapalo. It’s based on a Byron poem and tells the story of Sardanapalus, king of Assyria, who met a rather grisly end with his favourite concubine Myra after his subjects revolted, objecting to his decadent lifestyle. The libretto is by an unknown hand and it seems only Act 1 ever got written. Liszt made a start on setting that, leaving just about enough material for Cambridge scholar David Trippett to produce a performable version. This was duly performed and recorded in Weimar in 2018.
It’s basically bel canto with a nod to something more dramatic, more like French operas of the mid 19th century with a touch of Verdi perhaps. What it doesn’t sound like, at all, to me, is Wagner though that’s been suggested as an influence. There’s some work for the chorus but most of the music in Act 1 goes to the concubine Mirra, sung here by Joyce El-Khoury. She gets a pretty cavatina in the first scene and a more dramatic aria later. In the third and fourth scenes she gets a bunch of duets with Sardanapalo, sung here by tenor Airam Hernández. There’s also a brief part for the Chaldean soothsayer Beleso, sung here by bass-baritone Olexandr Pushniak, which allows for quite a dramatic concluding trio which would end the act very effectively if the composer hadn’t decided to play it out with three minutes of unremarkable orchestral music.
The performances here are very good indeed. El-Khoury is in her sweet spot and sings accurately and beautifully with a nice sense of line and her coloratura, of which there’s a tiny touch, is pinpoint. Hernández is good too with a bright ringing tenor sound and Pushniak sings powerfully with rather a dark tone contrasting nicely with the lovers. The orchestra and chorus of the Nationaltheater Weimar are well up to standard and Kirill Karabits’ conducting is idiomatic. Despite the fine performances I was left with the opinion that we probably haven’t missed a whole lot through this piece not having been brought to completion!
The recording , made in the Congress Centrum of the Neue Weimarhalle is fine. It’s well balanced and clear. The documentation is excellent with lots of detail about the piece and the reconstruction process. There’s also a bonus of a recording of the symphonic poem Mazeppa, about a legendary Cossack hero, on the disk. It’s a standard (44.1kHz/16 bit) CD release and is available as a physical CD and digitally in standard res FLAC and MP3 formats.
Catalogue number: Audite AUD 97764
For fun here’s the seriously overblown painting by Delacroix inspired by the same poem.