Many composers have embraced the tragic story of Dido drawn from Virgil’s The Aeneid but one of its finest operatic treatments is virtually unknown. “Trove Thursday” rights that wrong with a broadcast of Joseph Martin Kraus’s superb Aeneas i Cartago, eller Dido och Aeneas—in Swedish!—starring a luminous Elisabeth Söderström as the doomed Queen.
Kraus was born in Germany but moved to Sweden in his early 20s and soon became a favorite of King Gustav III whose great passion was to create a tradition of Swedish opera. To that purpose the King sent Kraus on a “grand tour” to soak up all that was happening throughout the current European musical scene. During his travels which lasted over four years he met among others Haydn and Gluck, the latter whose particular influence can readily be heard in Kraus’s operas.
Aeneas was commissioned to christen the new opera house being built by Gustav but various intrigues prevented this from happening and the building opened instead with Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s Cora och Alonzo. As all operagoers are aware, the King was assassinated at a masked ball in 1792 after which Kraus’s health quickly deteriorated and he died later that same year at age 36. Aeneas finally had its posthumous premiere in 1799 more than a decade after its composition began.
Other itinerant musicians contributed to that era’s burgeoning Swedish opera scene. Francesco Antonio Uttini’s 1773 Thetis och Pelée (whose libretto was based on a treatment by the King himself) was the first so-called “Gustaviansk” opera.
In addition to Kraus and Naumann other notable German-born opera composers of this period included Johann Christian Friedrich Hæffner and Georg Joseph Vogler. The bravura aria with an extensive violin and flute concertante from Naumann’s 1777 Amphion might be heard as a precursor to “Marten aller Arten” in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail which was composed five years later.
The American conductor Newell Jenkins, who often demonstrated an astonishingly prescient interest in compelling but then-unknown composers, was an early champion of Kraus even beyond Aeneas. In 1969 he recorded the celebrated Funeral Cantata for Gustav III with several of the leading Swedish singers of the day including Kerstin Meyer, Ragnar Ulfung and Kim Borg.
A year after this concert in Stockholm, Söderström and Jenkins collaborated on a repeat performanceof Aeneas in New York at Alice Tully Hall with Robert White as Aeneas.
The first of Kraus’s operas Proserspin was recorded in 1994 with a cast led by Hillevi Martinpelto and Peter Mattei.
While I was thinking about Kraus and Gustaviansk opera I pulled off the shelf my recording of Hæffner’s Electrawhich I hadn’t listened to in years and years and it too features Martinpelto and Mattei, she as the title character and he as Orest. Though fathoms away from Richard Strauss’s setting, it has its moments.
During her residence in Sweden while married to Håkan Hagegård, Barbara Bonney participated in a delightful CD of Kraus arias (including this one from Proserpin) and duets with tenor Claes-Häkan Ahnsjö which is now unfortunately OOP,
but another CD “La Primavera” includes four Kraus secular cantatas with a dazzling Simone Kermes on her best behavior remains available.
The reel-to-reel tape I bought of this broadcast when I was in college (which sits on a bookshelf in another room) was my first exposure to Söderström for whom I fell hard. Other recordings featuring the great Swedish soprano will appear on future “Trove Thursdays.”
Les Troyens, Berlioz’s epic setting of Dido’s tragedy, was the very first “Trove Thursday” offering nearly three years ago, but still other Didonian works will follow including at least one of the over 60 operas composed to Metastasio’s libretto Didone Abbandonata.
Kraus: Aeneas i Cartago, eller Dido och Aeneas
Stockholm Concert Hall
3 October 1979
Dido: Elisabeth Söderström
Clelie/Honour: Catharina Olsson
Juno: MariAnne Häggander
Venus: Solveig Faringer
Aeneas: Jonny Blanc
Jorbas/High Priest: Erland Hagegård
Eol/2nd High Priest: Mikael Samuelsson
Neptune: Staffan Sandlund
Ghost of Siche: Sven Anders Benktsson
Conductor: Newell Jenkins
Aeneas can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.