There’s always an oddity, a never-before-heard work, performed at Boston’s annual Early Music Festival. But back in 2009 budget cuts forced the cancellation of Christoph Graupner’s Antiochus und Stratonica, and it’s only now that we’re finally getting to hear this delightful opera – an exuberant comedy-drama by a 20-something composer keen to show off all musical tools in his kit.
There are shades of Phaedra to a plot that centres on the illicit passion Prince Antiochus feels for his stepmother Stratonica. Fortunately, this isn’t a tragedy, and when King Seleucus learns of the “sickness” that’s killing his beloved son, he swiftly suggests a wife-swap and everyone lives happily ever after.
There’s a lightness of touch to Graupner’s score that somehow transforms this rather stodgy subject into a genuinely charming entertainment. A large orchestra rich in recorders, oboes, bassoon and a glittering baroque harp keeps the colours coming, and both the many dance interludes and the obbligato arias are wonderfully varied in their textural shading – with an unexpected solo viola, a gruffly comic bassoon and chirruping flocks of woodwind all adding to the picture.
There’s also a flexibility to the musical form – arioso and short, strophic songs mixed up among full-scale da capo arias – that keeps things light and fresh, and recitative is kept to a functional minimum. Not all characters are created equal, however, and while Antiochus (a languidly heroic Christian Immler, tone beautifully burnished) gets plenty of introspective arioso, Stratonica (a slightly underwhelming Hana Blazikova) remains a cipher, outshone by Sherezade Panthaki’s abandoned wife Ellenia, caught in some of the work’s loveliest ensembles with wayward husband Demetrius (tenor Aaron Sheehan) and flirty sorceress Mirtenia (Sunhae Im).
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs’ band play with stylish vigour and, the rather insistent comedy of Papageno-esque servant Negrodorus aside, this is another unexpected triumph for Boston.
Composer: Christoph Graupner
Work: Antiochus und Stratonica
Artists: Boston Early Music Festival/Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs
Label: CPO 555369-2 (3CD)