Abandoned Liszt opera brought to life after 170 years

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An opera by Franz Liszt, forgotten for nearly two centuries, will be given its world premiere this summer after being discovered and brought to life by a Cambridge academic.

David Trippett, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge, unearthed the opera in a dusty archive in Weimar, central Germany, more than a decade ago. The manuscript was known only to a handful of Liszt scholars, and presumed unfinished, illegible, and indecipherable, with just a single act completed.

However, after two years of work, a ten-minute public preview of the opera will be performed as part of the world-famous BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest in June by Armenian soprano and rising talent Anush Hovhannisyan.

Trippet explans:

“In 1849 Liszt began composing an Italian opera, but he abandoned it halfway through and the music he completed has lain silently in an archive for nearly 170 years. This project is about bringing it to life for the very first time.

“The music that survives is breath-taking – a unique blend of Italianate lyricism and harmonic innovation. There is nothing else quite like it in the operatic world. It is suffused with Liszt’s characteristically mellifluous musical language, but was written at a time that he was first discovering Wagner’s operas.

“The only source for this opera is a single manuscript containing 111 pages of music for piano and voices. It was always assumed to be impossible to piece together, but after examining the notation in detail, it became clear Liszt had notated all the cardinal elements for act 1. You have to think through the artistic decisions traceable in the manuscript and try to reconstruct the creative process, to see how Liszt’s mind went this way and that.”

He continued:

“In effect, the manuscript has been hiding in plain sight for well over 100 years,” added Trippett. “It was written for Liszt’s eyes only, and has various types of musical shorthand, with spatial gaps in the manuscript. A lot of it is very hard to read, but the scruffiness is deceptive. It seems Liszt worked out all the music in his head before he put pen to paper, and to retrieve this music, I’ve had to try and put myself into the mind of a 19th-century composer, a rare challenge and a remarkable opportunity.

“Fortunately, Liszt left just enough information to retrieve what was evidently the continuous musical conception he had at the time. We will never know exactly why he abandoned his work on the opera and I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that it is resurfacing in the 21st century. But I like to think he would have smiled on it.”

Trippett worked alone on restoring the music Liszt notated, but he was aided by Cambridge colleague Francesca Vella on deciphering the Italian text and musicologist David Rosen on translating the libretto into English.

The libretto, based on Lord Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus, tells the story of Sardanapalo, King of Assyria, a peace-loving monarch, more interested in revelry and women than politics and war. He deplores violence and brutality, and, perhaps naively, he believes in the innate goodness of humankind, but is overthrown by rebels and burns himself alive with his lover, Mirra, amid scents and spices in a great inferno.

Ahead of the BBC event in June, Trippett and his colleagues are putting the finishing touches to a documentary film for the University of Cambridge, due for release on 15 May, which chronicles the resurrection of Liszt’s forgotten masterpiece, with singers Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano), Samuel Sakker (tenor) and Arshak Kuzikyan (bass-baritone).

Asked about the experience, Hovhannisyan commented:

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the entire process of making it work – from thinking about the character and what Liszt would want – has been a privilege. We have had a wonderful, deeply creative and imaginative time piecing this together and I feel very blessed to have been a part of it.”

A critical edition of the music for act 1 will be published by Editio Musica Budapest in 2018.

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