If you’re a musician, you probably have run into this Prague-born pal of Beethoven and Haydn, who was known especially for his wind quintets and octets, and his piano fugues. His Cours de Composition Musicale was one of the first modern classroom harmony textbooks, building a pedagogical corpus influencing the whole 19th century. His instructions for wind instruments are still significantly important today.
So why, then, was Rejcha such a miserable failure at writing operas? Even if his Cagliostro (1810) or Sapho (1822) were performed, they failed. His others were not produced at all. Similarly, his Argene, Regina di Granata – bravely produced in concert form Feb 21 by the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) — had been given only once, and only in a private “salon du musique” in Vienna’s emperor palace.The libretto was given to Rejcha in 1801 by empress Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, the grandson of the famous Maria Theresa. Rejcha wanted to start his career in the imperial seat of Vienna; he could not say no, and composed a four-hour opera (shortened to 1.5 hours today). It complied with the empress’s taste — and also her competence as a singer, because she liked performing in pieces carried out for her pleasure.
The plot is very simple: the prince of Syracuse, Almerico, loves Argene, but she has to marry the Lusitanian king Edimiro. When Prince Almerico arrives at his court, he finds out that he cannot live without Argene, and is going to take his own life. Argene is almost dying of grief, and when King Edimiro understands the situation, he refrains from marrying Argene and blesses her marriage to Almerico. The newlyweds and all the people praise the ruler’s noble-mindedness.
It is necessary to say that the empress could not have been a bad singer at all, if she sang the same material as Kateřina Kněžíková (soprano) at the first modern introduction of Argene at The Municipal House. She as Argene, Michaela Šrůmová (soprano) in the “breeches role” of Almerico; her lover, Jaroslav Březina (tenor) as Edimiro, and Zdeněk Plech (bass) as the High Priest, were accompanied by the FOK Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno. Together they all provided an impressive excursion to the atmosphere of high classicism with the first hints of romanticism.
A Simple Story
The libretto, whose author is still not certain, avoids the numerous embroilments we are used to in operas with a similar plot (Handel’s Rodelinda, Mozart’s Titus, and even the comic Abduction from the Seraglio), which makes it especially suitable for concert performance like this. It lets us relish Rejcha’s development of the soloists’ parts by the orchestra and its delicate interplay with both the solo and choir singers.
The FOK (under the confident leadership of Vojtěch Spurný) was excellent, and reduced to 38 players – the better to hear single instrument groups, especially the winds (Rejcha can’t be denied!). Mr. Spurný much praised the cooperation with the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and its conductor Jan Ocetek. They were able to study their parts on their own, with only two rehearsals with the orchestra!
It is quite impossible to highlight only one of the soloists; let’s just hope that their brilliant achievement will encourage others to perform this charming piece of music on the concert platform more often. — oo
– Lucie Rohanová