A Rare Early Attempt at Serious Opera in German: Ignaz Holzbauer’s Tod der Dido (1780)

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HOLZBAUER: Tod der Dido (1780)

Ignaz Holzbauer

Ignaz Holzbauer

Sandrine Piau (Dido), Carmen Fuggiss (Selene), Markus Schäfer (Osmida), Thomas Mohr (Jarbas, King of the Moors)
Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra and Members of Stuttgart Chamber Chorus, conducted by Frieder Bernius

Carus 50.505—53 minutes

Ignaz Holzbauer (1711-83) was for many years the head of musical activities at the court in Mannheim and indeed responsible for overseeing musical activities elsewhere in the Electorate Palatinate (including Düsseldorf and Heidelberg).

It is perhaps hard for us to imagine what determination Holzbauer, in 1780, must have had to write an opera in German, and sung from beginning to end, on a tragic tale from classical antiquity, at a time when such topics were considered the primary province of French spoken drama and Italian opera seria. Mozart’s two most important German operas—The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute—are from around the same time as Holzbauer, but both are comedies, with often larky spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. (This is not to deny that both Mozart works also have dark or philosophical overtones.)

Several early-to-mid-nineteenth-century composers—Spohr, Weber, Marschner, Franz Lachner, Schumann—would, like Holzbauer before them, create serious operas in German, and in a more intense style typical of the Romantic era. Still, it would take Richard Wagner, a creative genius and a massive egotist, to establish, once and for all, the genre of German Romantic Opera, with Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and then Tristan und Isolde, the Ring Cycle, and Parsifal. 

Record collectors have thus far been able to acquire a number of Holzbauer’s instrumental works, but also two recordings (one with a young Anna Moffo!) of his first, bold attempt at writing a serious German opera: Günther von Schwarzburg (1777). (The great tenor Fritz Wunderlich can be heard in a duet from that opera here, phrasing with natural elegance. Alas, the soprano, Elisabeth Verlooy, is not remotely at his level of vocal artistry.) Mozart found the music of Günther von Schwarzburg “very beautiful” and expressed surprise that a 66-year-old man could write such music so full of “fire.”

Tod der Dido (Dido’s Death) is a one-act opera that Holzbauer wrote three years later, when he was 69 and, by the evidence here, still full of fire—if, of course, still deeply wedded to the poised, balanced style of the Classic era (i.e., the age of Haydn and Mozart). Its basic story is one that was frequently set by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera composers, including Purcell, and also (much later) by Berlioz: how Dido, the queen of Carthage, is abandoned by Aeneas (in order to fulfill his divine mission of founding Rome) and then, in sorrow and rage, commits suicide.

Holzbauer based his German “Dido’s Death” on an Italian one-act opera that he had written to a condensed version of an old libretto by Metastasio (La morte di Didone), and that, in 1779, had been prominently staged in Mannheim’s new National Theater before a distinguished audience. For the German version, Holzbauer was assisted by Anton Klein, the librettist of his aforementioned 1777 Günther von Schwarzburg. It contains only an overture, six arias (three for Dido, and one each for the other three characters), stretches of orchestrally accompanied recitative to motivate the next aria, and two choral interventions by the troops of Iarbas, king of the Moors, as they set fire to Carthage.

The overture, unusually for its time, contains three passages that are labeled to show how they will occur later in the opera (e.g., “The Pride and Indignation of Iarbas”). Holzbauer and Klein labeled the work a Singspiel, but this is misleading: there is no spoken dialogue. Tod der Dido was possibly not performed during Holzbauer’s lifetime. It did somehow get staged a year after his death, in 1784. But it seems to have gone unperformed thereafter.

Tod der Dido thus had very little presence in the musical and theatrical life of its own day. But here it is, in full, and brilliantly performed in the Schwetzingen Castle (which is outside of Mannheim). The performance took place over twenty years ago, in 1997, and it is apparently only now getting released. A score is also available, likewise from the Carus publishing firm that is marketing this recording.

The Dido is the wonderful French soprano Sandrine Piau. She clearly understands the text and puts its meaning across, though I find her final “r” in words such as “deiner” too Italianate. The other three soloists are native German-speakers. Dido’s sister Selene is the splendid high soprano Carmen Fuggiss, whose singing thrilled me in a recent release (likewise belated) of Hasse’s Attilio Regolo (March/April 2018). Dido’s loyal male confidant Osmida is the ever-reliable Markus Schäfer, whom I admired in that same Hasse recording and also in more recent recordings of works by Simon Mayr. The Moorish king Iarbas (in German: Jarbas) is the better-than-adequate Thomas Mohr. An extra bit of fun: his last name actually means Moor!

The Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra makes pungent sounds and remains consistently in tune. The voices are a bit forward, compared to the orchestra. But everything comes through quite effectively. I particularly enjoyed the accompanied recitatives, in which the singers, conductor, and orchestral musicians all sound wonderfully involved in the drama. The highly informative booklet essay, in German, is given also in a somewhat oddly translated English version that is missing some crucial paragraphs. The libretto is provided only in German. The Carus firm, whose name, in Latin, means “dear” or “precious,” should try harder to make its products dearly loved in other lands.

Holzbauer would surely be pleased to know that his important and imaginative one-act German serious opera is now available for all the world to hear and study. He’d probably also be interested to hear about the many significant German-language operas that came after his death, including The Magic Flute and The Flying Dutchman. I hope to remember to mention this to him, if I meet him in the afterlife.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015) (both from Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaTodayMusicology Now, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His 18 articles for New York Arts have included pieces on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëlla major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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