Liszt's forgotten opera heard for the first time

Posted By News On March 7, 2017 - 12:05am

An unfinished opera by Franz Liszt had lain largely forgotten in a German archive for nearly two centuries but now it will be given its world premiere this summer.

Known only to a handful of Liszt scholars, the manuscript – with much of its music written in shorthand and only one act completed – was assumed to be fragmentary, often illegible and consequently indecipherable.

“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,” said David Trippett, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. “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.”

A critical edition of the music for act 1 will be published by Editio Musica Budapest (Universal Music Publishing) in 2018. Although Trippett has worked alone on rescuing the music Liszt notated, Cambridge’s Francesca Vella has worked on deciphering the Italian text alongside musicologist David Rosen, whose principal role has been to translate 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.

A ten-minute scene from the opera will be performed at the final of the BBC Singer of the World event by Armenian soprano and rising talent Anush Hovhannisyan.

“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.”