Louis Spohr: Jessonda (1822)

Grosse Oper im drei Akten. Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

Jessonda was an answer to Der Freischutz, specifically because Spohr disliked the usage of spoken dialogue that plagued German opera for over a century. The scenario was actually devised by Spohr himself, although the libretto was written by a Eduard Gehe. It incorporates a thicker orchestration than that of Weber, ballet, choral usage, and possesses a far simpler  plot than the singspiel which is today seen as the crowning achievement of pre-Wagnerian German music. The plot was both the reason for its early success (it is set in India and concerns a romantic conflict between Hindus and Portuguese) and why it was untimely banned by the Nazis in the 1930s. Its performance history up to that time would indicate that it was a massive success, but today, although the opera has been recorded several times, only the overture gets much of an airing these days.

LINK:

SETTING: Goa, India, first quarter of the 16th century. Jessonda (soprano) is the widow of the recently deceased Rajah and as such is to be sacrificed under the law of Suttee. However, before her marriage she was the lover of a Portuguese general. This is Tristan da Cunha (baritone), yes, that Tristan da Cunha, who in this opera is the Portuguese governor of India (he wasn’t, his son was) and has promised to permit Indian custom so long as they abide by their side of a treaty. Meanwhile, a Brahman named Nadori (tenor) has fallen in love with her sister Amazili (soprano) and is trying to find a way to avoid having Jessonda killed by the chief priest Dandau (bass). The only other named character is a Portuguese colonel named Pedro Lopez (tenor).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (51 minutes)

0: The overture ** is a somewhat famous concert piece and surprisingly understated. It never goes into a big crescendo or even beyond forte really, although it does have a Vivace section in the second half. Strangely placid, but pleasant, if it lacks any great singular tune. Rather similar to the overture to Genoveva but definitely less of a bore. Solid Teutonic mood music.

Scene 1: The Brahmin Temple.

8: Kalt und starr The opening choral sequence starts off somewhat dry, or rather sedate, as they observe the High Priest but eventually a dance tune is struck up and the situation improves * before Dandau explains the whole suttee thing as the orchestra tippy-toes its way along. The chorus declares that this is necessary to redeem the soul of the deceased.

19: Aus dieses Temples heilgen There is then a dialogue between Dandau and Nadori (we also learn that the latter has more liberal tendencies). The recitatives are much closer to true arioso here, but the duet has a rather lilting appeal from the tenor ** which gives the entire number a Mozartean effect. Dandau accuses Nadori of stalling because he has been beguiled by the beauty of women, specifically (although not directly mentioned) Amazili, the sister of the Queen.

24: Der auf Morgen Abend Dandau orders Nadori (who is still rather unwilling) to take the news of her impending demise to Jessonda in an otherwise rather ordinary aria salvaged by the added choral effect *.

Scene 2: A room in the palace of Jessonda.

32: Die ihr Fuhlende Jessonda and Amazili embark on a long patch of recitative in which they express their concern for this whole suttee arrangement. We learn a lot about them, for instance, the women are not native to the country they currently inhabit. Finally, Jessonda embarks on a long recitative passage with full orchestration followed by an aria ** rendered rather lovely by a series of held high As as she remarks on her one regret: never seeing the Portuguese captain she loves ever again (foreshadowing).

41: So wie das Rohr zerbrach The act finale is in two parts the first made more interesting by the addition of chimes * as Nadori arrives to tell Jessonda that all is in readiness for the sacrifice. He stops in mid-sentence, the women comment on this, and he continues, claiming that he bemoans his own fate in having to be a part of the situation.

46: Reiche, herrliche Natur The remainder of the act consists of a five minute trio with a more lilting and far less sedate melody as Nadori vows to save Jessonda out of his new found attraction for Amazili **.

ACT 2: A River bank near a Portuguese Encampment. (46 minutes)

1: Kein Sang und Klang The Portuguese are introduced in a good chorus set to waltz time *. Actually, much of the score is in 3/4 time for some reason. We meet Tristan da Cunha and his second Lopez and there is a bit of Eurocentric peace-mongering as all of the Portuguese are crowned by an Angel of Peace in pantomime (I am not making this up). Tristan has divided loyalties: War and a Woman (Jessonda), the usual.

9: Der Kriegslust ergeben Tristan goes into an aria about his personal conflict which is more interesting because of the militant element from the orchestra **.

15: Lasst mich auf Augenblicke Suddenly, there is a lovely tune from the pit as Jessonda and Amazili arrive on the river bank and the Queen dismisses the Priestesses. The sisters embark on a touching duet **.

23: Das mich Gluck Something different: a rondo from Nadori as he contemplates the beauty of women (in particular Amazili) **. And this time in March 4/4 time!

28: Schones Madchen And now we come into the best music so far in the opera *** as Nadori and Amazili meet and embark on a glorious love duet.

33:  O Welt, so schon und bluhend Alone, Amazili gets a brief aria about how beautiful the world is *. A sweet little piece.

37: Aus der Wellen heil’gem Schoss Jessonda returns with the Priestesses and a modified form of that tune from earlier returns ** (it is not identical). Jessonda is about to leave for the sacrifice when Tristan sees her and attempts to detain her. The Portuguese brandish their swords when Tristan is rebuffed by the Indian priestesses.

43: Herr, gebietest du? Dandau arrives and gives the proceedings slightly more fiery oomph and we are off into an exciting act finale as the lovers are torn apart *. It just doesn’t  build to the crescendo one thinks it will.

ACT 3: (31 minute

Scene 1: The interior of a Portuguese tent.

0, 4, 8: Was fur tin Fest/Auf, und lasst die Fahnen! The prelude * gives the impression that something great awaits us, we shall see. We come upon Lopez and then also Tristan who goes into a long arioso about the ritual of Sati *.  Nadori arrives and reveals that Dandau himself has ordered an attack on the Portuguese fleet, violating the treaty and nullifying the non-interference clause for Tristan (so he can now rescue Jessonda). A brief but striking trio ends the scene ** as they go off to stop the sacrifice.

Scene 2: The Interior of the Temple as in Act 1.

9, 11: Aufgewacht! Aufgewacht!/ Traces of a storm from the orchestra ** (foreshadowing) bring us to the chorus of Hindus preparing for the sacrifice. Bayaderes dance *, more storm traces in the distance as Dandau starts the ceremony (these will obviously only increase). They leave after getting a bit roused up; Jessonda comes on in a rich dress surrounded by yet more Bayaderes.

19: Ich hatt’ entsagt der Erde Freuden Jessonda renounces the joys of earthly life *** in a rather remarkable aria.

25, 28, 30: Mein Schritt, beflugelt von Entzucken A lot is packed into the last seven minutes of the opera: Amazili comes on and embarks on a duettino with Jessonda **; Dandau returns and orders that the Sati take place at once (meanwhile Portuguese trumpets are heard in the background). The Portuguese have managed to invade the temple from the underground: Jessonda is rescued, and the two pairs of lovers are reunited * ending in a fifty-second long finaletto with the Portuguese in the background *.

COMMENTS:

Jessonda is sort of what Mozart would have sounded like if he had lived into the 1820s and not gone totally Italian. At its best, the score has either a joyousness or a militancy to it which contrasts with the majority of the music which can be rather sedate if not forlorn. The first act is a little dull, but the second improves and the third builds up a bit more (the storm music), while never does the score shake off the forlorn quality it appears with which to be impregnated. It is never gloomy, but it isn’t really all that exciting either.  Sophr is trying to convey a wild range of emotions and situations: fear, romantic attraction, surprise chance meeting, excitement, a storm, doom, militancy, and he does very well with some and seems not so much to do badly with as ignore others. The plot is somewhat predictable: we never for a minute think Jessonda, with all of her earthly farewells, is actually going to be burned alive, although two factors in the libretto are troubling: is Nadori just infatuated with Amazili (this appears to be his own motivation in trying to save Jessonda and there is a lot in the libretto from the male characters just about feminine beauty) and the Euro-jingoism from the Portuguese (which is admittedly rather standard for the 19th century and should probably just be ignored for the most part, although the opening of Act 2 would be a piece of work certainly if staged as written). The libretto seems to imply that Jessonda and Amazili are possibly Portuguese (their father showed up in Goa and was not originally from there as is stated by Amazili in their first duet), and seeing that the Indians are the badies in this one, was it the relationship between Amazili and Nadori which the Nazis objected to rather than that of Jessonda and Tristan? Certainly they would not have objected to the ridiculous peace-crowning ceremony at the start of act 2. Overall, this is definitely an opera which I wished I liked more, but I don’t. If you are going to seek it out, however, go with this Orfeo release. B+.

8 thoughts on “Louis Spohr: Jessonda (1822)

  1. ”although the opera has been recorded several times”

    The Orfeo release is it’s only recording to date, which is splendid thank goodness.

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    1. Actually, there is at least this 1985 live performance with Cheryl Studer available on YouTube. It is shorter by about a quarter of an hour but also conducted by Albrecht. Not sure if it has been commercially released, but it is definitely an alternate recording of the opera, and the overture has many releases.

      I can tell that you like this opera more than I do Kevin. I do not dislike it, but it really did not live up to what I thought it would be like either. Possibly I would like it more seeing it staged, but I do not have that option at this time.

      Also, I am addicted to Orfeo Records in general.

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      1. Definitely! Although that is a low bar. If I remember I did not even give G a letter grade, although it would have to be a gamma. Jessonda, for me, is more of a strong beta, so B+. I toyed with an A-/B+ borderline, but I was going through the German-English libretto and that angel of peace crowning the Portuguese was ridiculous. I am also not convinced that the ballet music works, anywhere in the score, so I would have to see it. So much of this score is darn quiet!

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    2. Although I did not look at it until after I posted my own review, Gramophone reviewed this recording and the words mild and mildness were the consensus for the score. There were two sections that were rather liked however, both of which I gave three stars (the act 2 love duet and the act 3 aria for Jessonda). The reviewer also connected it to Tristan und Isolde, I assume in relation to the vast quiet parts of that score. By the way did you get to my review of Genoveva?

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    1. It is there, I just never added it to the Chronological Review Navigator. If you google Genoveva PhilsOperaWorld, it is there, but I will add it to the list as well. I haven’t been updating it for about a year or so now.

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  2. I got you review of Genoveva, don’t worry. 🙂

    You are correct about Tristan and Isolde: in the new Grove Online it mentions Jessonda as an inspiration, mainly do to the works chromaticism. Wagner, Richard Srauss and Brahms all thought highly of the work. This opera is not for everyone, Spohr’s not an easy listen. 

    Even his instrumental music is “quiet” as you say, not full blooded in the least. I still enjoy the work with its flaws you eloquently mention, the Orfeo recording convinced me as well.

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