ABERT: Ekkehard
Van Ingen, Kelling, Fujimura; Kaufmann, Reiter, Gerhaher, Hempel, Böhm; Stuttgart Choristers, South German Radio Orchestra, Falk. German libretto only. Capriccio 60-080 (2)  
Among composers of late-Romantic German opera, such names as Engelbert Humperdinck, Hermann Goetz and Siegfried Wagner occasionally come up, but you won't hear much about Johann Joseph Abert (1832-1915). Born in Bohemia, he worked for decades in Stuttgart, but the distinguishing feature of his operas is their absorption of French influence, thanks to a prolonged period of study in Paris. Capriccio's CD revival of Ekkehard (1878) stems from a concert performance aired over South German Radio in 1998 during the Autumn Music Days at Bad Urach. Those who can read German will be ahead of the game, as only the original libretto is supplied, and the English plot outline leaves out a lot. Perseverance is advised, however: this opera is worth hearing.

The story combines warlike monks and an Ortud type of pagan sorceress with a too-good-to-be-true duchess and her chivalric love affair with Ekkehard, a monastic tutor knight (how else to describe him?). Thanks to Abert's genuine gifts as a melodist, the score is more appealing than its subject. In his efforts to emulate Wagner without sounding too modern, Abert wrote page after page of lovely, natural-sounding dialogue to his own stilted, rhymed text. The climactic love duet of Act III, divided in parts like the duet from Un Ballo in Maschera, is a cornucopia of distinctive, generous melody, and the finale that follows is effectively structured. Abert's writing combines an admirable sweet simplicity with subtle touches of harmony and orchestration. Bassoons growl and flutes flicker while the villainous Montfort schemes Ekkehard's downfall.

There's no weak link in the cast, though some characterizations are less than vivid. As Hadwig, Duchess of Swabia, Nyla van Ingen could use more heft and authority. She and her handmaiden, Praxedis (Susanne Kelling), both err on the side of caution. The same goes for Mihoko Fujimura as the Woman of the Woods, the anti-Christian witch who wages war against the brotherhood of monks; there's more to her role than meets the ear in this performance. On the other hand, everyone sings pretty much on pitch, and the sense of singing style is everywhere right for the music.

The strength of the cast, happily, lies in its protagonist, Jonas Kaufmann, whose pure, unwavering lyric tenor holds a firm legato and gives the role heartfelt convinction, notably in his Act III monologue, "Der Gedanken Sturm zu bannen." Jörg Hempel doesn't put quite enough teeth into the role of Montfort; his baritone sounds watery. The other players -- Christian Gerhaher as the jolly cellar master, Alfred Reiter as the Abbot, Henryk Böhm as the Duchess's treasurer -- put spirit into their work, as does the chorus, whose music includes both folklike tunes and more complex ensembles. The idiomatic conductor, Peter Falk, persuasively unifies and enlivens this reading, and the studio sound is fine.

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