Georg Philipp Telemann wrote the opera Emma und Eginhard in 1728 for Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt Opera. It tells the story of forbidden love between the daughter of Charlemagne and the emperor’s scribe and confidante.
The action takes place on Charlemagne’s court, shortly after his victory in the Saxon wars. In times of peace, described by the now unemployed field marshall Alvo in his comic aria “Splitting heads, hacking limbs...”, the royal court turns to matters of the heart. This yearning for affection is felt through all levels of society, multifaceted and with the most diverse motivation imaginable. The characters display the entire spectrum of amorous entanglement – mutual love, unrequited love, unsuccessful propositions, love as a playful way of passing the time, and so on. It is material that would make for light entertainment were it not for the dramatic turn of events in the case of Emma und Eginhard, whose forbidden affair is discovered, upon which the emperor Charlemagne condemns them to death. Their pangs of conscience, their desperation and, finally, the triumph of love give the opportunity for an intensive portrayal of the characters and their predicament.
And yet the piece is never really dramatic, remaining rather at the level of implication and innuendo. There is a happy end, but the evening remains undecided, somewhere between comedy and drama.
That also goes for Eva Maria Höckmayr’s staging. Much is implied, but little in the way of deeper meaning can be inferred. The entire series of events is presented as a dream in the mind of court jester Steffen, who comments on the action but never appears as a truly comic figure.
The two main characters, in their search for a chance to follow their love for one another, are under continuous observation from their peers at the court, and the audience is also drawn into this voyeuristic perspective. Despite this, the production never really develops its own form or character and moments of true excitement are conspicuous in their absence.
Works written for the Gänsemarkt opera were pitched at the masses, and it was probably never Telemann’s intention to reach profound depths. What the public wanted were more or less explicit digs at the aristocratic class, alongside demonstrations that the servants were more clever than their masters – and that a very long time before Beaumarchais.
For all this it is a diverting evening, an entertaining tie of the better kind. The soloists make an impressively well-balanced ensemble, with Robin Johannsen’s Emma standing out as exceptional.
The evening’s real stars are the Akademie für Alte Musik under René Jacobs. They breathe life into a Telemann opera that can really be chalked up as a discovery. The piece is unquestionably worth hearing, and shows Telemann as master of diverse affects, virtuosic and accessible, with a remarkable gift for colourful and unusual instrumentation. Jacobs’ direction, part of a long and distinguished partnership with Berlin’s Akademie für Alte Musik, makes it more than possible to delight in the pleasures of this music. The musicians approach the different affects with mastery, whether gallant, dance-like or militaristic - everything is presented at the highest possible musical level, even if courage for the extravagant moment, for even more descriptive sound production, is lacking - for instance in the penultimate execution scene. Still, it is a unified team effort which once again confirms the status of this ensemble. Concertmaster Nadja Zwiener, who joined the orchestra at the eleventh hour to replace the injured Bernard Forck, deserves special praise, as do the solo French Horn and the flute section.