Most listeners will be unfamiliar with Saradanapolo, the second and major work on the program of this release featuring conductor Kirill Karabits, leading Liszt's orchestra, the Staatskapelle Weimar. Saradanapolo was an unfinished opera by Liszt, long thought to be fragmentary and unperformable. Liszt (who left a lot of music incomplete) finished only the first act, abandoning the work possibly because he had disagreements with the librettist, possibly because he had read Wagner's writings and was not keen to be associated with an Italian opera. Further, he left the work only in a piano score. He did, however, include some indications as to orchestration, and it is thought that he intended to leave that task to his student Joachim Raff. Thus, British musicologist David Triplett was on solid ground in attempting a completion of the first act. The results are striking. Triplett's orchestrations are convincing, flowing naturally from those in the symphonic poem Mazeppa, which opens the program. But even more interesting is the structure of the music. The libretto is in Italian and is based on a play by Lord Byron about the titular Assyrian king, his slave mistress, Mirra, and various hangers-on. The first act focuses on Mirra, who gets a big scene with an aria and cabaletta. But here's the thing: none of the Italian bel canto forms quite stick. Liszt breaks them up and fools with them continually, matching them elegantly to aspects of the story, and looking constantly to the future. The music has been compared to that of Meyerbeer, but it's more like what would have happened if the young Wagner had written an Italian opera for some reason. The prima donna role of Mirra is sung by the emerging Lebanese-Canadian star Joyce El-Khoury, and she has an unbridled dramatic power that more than makes up for the fact that in the territory above high C, she's not quite there. Airam Hernández as Saradanapolo is a strong foil. Karabits keeps things moving, both in the opera and in Mazeppa, and at the very least this opera is going to contribute some arias to vocal recitals and recording collections, Mirra's "Più lunga cura" above all. Highly recommended, and a great surprise.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim