INKPOT#84 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART, et al. The Philsopher’s Stone. Various/Boston Baroque/Pearlman (Telarc)
The Philsopher’s Stone
World Premiere RecordingA Fairy Tale Opera from 1790 to a libretto by Emmanuel Schikaneder.
Rediscovered and edited in 1996 by David Buch.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Johann Baptist Henneberg
Franz Xaver Gerl
Sadik Chris Pedro Trakas
Nadine Judith Lovat
Nadir Paul Austin Kelly
Lubano Kevin Deas
Lubanara Jane Giering-De Haan
Genie Sharon Baker
Eutifronte Alan Ewing
Astromonte Kurt Streit Boston Baroque Orchestra and Chorus
directed by Martin Pearlman
performing on period instruments
Libretto in German with English translation
TELARC CD 80508
2 discs [2h 04:20]
by Ng Yeuk Fan
New music excites; a new opera excites tremendously. A new opera by Mozart is out of this world! Well, The Philsopher’s Stone is not quite out of this world by my definition but it certainly falls somewhere in between tremendous excitement and outer space!
As American musicologist David Buch puts it: “We may never know the extent of Mozart’s involvement”. Buch discovered the score of The Philsopher’s Stone in the archives of the City and University Library of Hamberg, Germany in 1996. On it, Mozart’s name was found to grace the score of a major ‘Cat’ duet in the opera and over substantial sections of the second act finale. The argument is that though his involvement may on the one hand be limited as such, he may have been involved in the re-writing or correction, suggestion and/or orchestration of other parts of this opera by his theatre friends Henneberg, Schack, Gerl and Schikaneder.
On the other hand, one is amazed by the amount of similarity between The Philsopher’s Stone and another Mozart fantastical magical singspiel, The Magic Flute. Bits of arias, musical devices and even designated voice parts in The Philosopher’s Stone suggest their relative nature.
It might be a long time more before academics unearth details for us to figure out the extent of Mozart’s authorship, but be it Schikaneder or Mozart, it is clear from my listening that the two operas (Magic Flute and Philsopher’s Stone) are extensions of the same spirit – the truly efferverscent and eternally frivolous, the hugely naive and hopelessly romantic.
The Story. With a genie, a sorcerer, a virgin, and a magical bird, sword and arrow, Mozart and his friends created a fairy-tale opera that prefigured The Magic Flute. And like all Mozart operas – the convolutedness involved makes for an impossible summary of the plot. Definitely not the usual day for non-schizophrenic citizens like you and me… but here goes:
Act 1. Two pairs of lovers: Nadir and Nadine, Lubano and Lubanara begin the story. The latter couple married secretly and are hopelessly bored by each other. The former are hopelessly in love, and not allowed to marry, Nadir being the adopted brother of Nadine. They approach Sadik’s temple where sacrifices are being made to Astromonte, a god of their land.
Sadik expresses apprehension that his daughter Nadine may be abducted by Astromonte, who has sent a Genie in a cloud chariot to deliver a magical bird to the most virtuous virgin in the land. Lubano overhears that Lubanara wants to be carried off in Astromonte’s carriage and thus locks her (Lubanara) in a cabin. Lubanara evokes Eutifronte, the evil brother of Astromonte, who releases her but transports her to the underworld instead. At the same time Eutifronte puts antlers – the traditional sign of a cuckold – on Lubano’s head.
The magical bird (from the Genie in the cloud chariot, sent by Astromonte) is passed from maiden to maiden. Nadir is exasperated when the bird sings only to Nadine. At this moment Astromonte arrives and explains that the bird was a gift from his father to placate his bereavement of his wife, who had died in sorrow when their son was suffocated by his evil brother.
Aforementioned evil brother had done so in revenge to prevent his (Astromonte’s) son from being given the powerful magic stone – the Philosopher’s Stone – by their father. This singing of the bird had reminded him (Astromonte) of his loss and now charmed by the beauty of Nadine, he carries her off in his cloud chariot. Nadine faints as she is towed away while Sadik and Nadir curse Astromonte for his abduction of their loved one.
Act 2. Shepherds and shepherdesses set sail to help Sadik recover his daughter, but they are met with a storm. Their prayers to Astromonte for safety is met with lightning sent by Eutifronte (the evil bro), which sinks the ship. All die except Nadir and Lubano – who are wrecked on an island.
Eutifronte co-opts Nadir, who in anger agrees to kill Astromonte. Meanwhile Lubano prays to Astromonte for food to satisfy his hunger. The genie appears with a large fruit which contains a book of wisdom. Eight dwarfs appear to lead Lubano away from the book of wisdom but Lubanara miraculously appears – but her voice has been transformed into a meow by Eutifronte.
Lubano begs Eutifronte to reverse the spell and the three (Lubano, Lubanara and Nadir) are reunited in a cave where a magic sword is being forged to kill Astromonte. Eutifronte plots to kill Astromonte. The genie then appears and steals Lubanara away. Eutifronte’s dwarfs give hot pursuit but are thrown down a cliff by the genie.
Nadir gets into Astromonte’s palace with the sword but fails to kill him. In anger, he shoots Eutifronte’s magic arrow at Astromonte’s magic bird but accidentally wounds Nadine instead. Nadir despairs and curses Eutifronte. The genie leads Nadir away and finds Lubano trapped in a cage by Eutifronte.
Nadir mistakes him as a bird and is about to kill him when Astromonte appears disguised as an old man with the real bird. The old man/Astromonte treaties with him to give up the sword in exchange for the life of Nadine and all the drowned shepherds and shepherdesses. He agrees and Astromonte throws off his disguise and reveals that Nadir is actually his son – the one that was supposed to have been suffocated.
A huge eagle arrives and presents the all-powerful Philospher’s Stone to Nadir. The rest are miraculously resurrected and Astromonte orders Eutifronte to reform – but the evil brother refuses and plunges back into the underworld. Lubano is released from his cage and reunited with Lubanara, voice and all. Nadir and Nadine are married and they live happily ever after pledging to offer sacrifices to Astromonte every year.
Phew. [Editor’s Note: this plot version 3.100]
Music & Performance. Surprisingly impeccable is the Boston Baroque’s playing throughout; I found myself delighted by its straightforward aptness. Under the direction of Martin Pearlman, this early instrument orchestra sounds gorgeously luscious with Telarc’s superb recording facilities. The tone is atmospheric and Pearlman’s direction comes close to achieving the appealing Mozartian flavor – light, crisp, always keeping me at the edge of my seat but never quite so serious either. Listen to the Overture to the Second Act where Pearlman conjures the stormy sea in which the ship is sailing. This brilliant quality complements the fantastical magical world of Schikaneder’s libretto – the marriage of wizardry and comique, passion and religiousness.
The “Cat Duet” (CD2 Track8) is vintage Mozart, such delightful orchestration and interplay of both voices! One breaks into a knowing smile immediately at its charm. Much of the Act 2 finale is very good too, especially the extended buildup to the curtain. However, the touted ‘seamlessness’ of this combined effort may remain elusive to some as there are real stylistic and quality differences in themes at various parts of the opera. Pearlman must be given credit for holding such a diversive work together!
Listen to the March of the Dwarfs (CD2 Track 6) – it stands out from everything immediately before and after it. Further, the awkward use of ornamentation in Nadine’s aria (CD2 Track 18) clashes with the simple beauty of the theme introduced. At other places, a theme which begins most promisingly seems to be developed into something altogether different, such as in Nadir’s aria (CD2 Track 12). Excellent tunes are introduced throughout the opera and it is a great loss indeed that some of them were not developed to the fullest extent, such as the theme in Nadir’s aria (CD2 Track 22), where one feels a kind of bitterness at the dismissal of such great music.
Vocal parts are managed relatively well. I found most of the soloists very tasteful in the handling of the ‘Mozartian’ style in all but the most taxing parts. Running notes mostly still need work and there are hints of too open a vowel sounds at higher tessituras. There is also an occasional inappropriate preoccupation with ornamentation. Soloists can afford to act a bit more in their dialogues to bring across the fantasy and more hysterics are welcomed! The Boston Baroque Chorus is excellent indeed and I enjoyed every single chorus from beginning to end.
All in all, The Philosopher’s Stone is far from falling apart structurally. Individual parts shimmer with loads of musical material and that is clearly its greatest merit. I am persuaded that it is possible that the parts can be greater than their sum in this case and one will be rewarded richly by approaching this without all the seriousness I have detailed above. There is much fun in this work befitting its miraculous story and it is for the individual listener to revel in the joy of discovering gems in this collaborative effort.
Ng Yeuk Fan revels in the just ended fantasy TV serial The Great Condor Hero, which sports magical Chinese kong-fu.