In 1840, Richard Wagner was down on his luck. In spite of Meyerbeer's enthusiastic endorsement, he had had no luck in getting his music before the public, and when an eagerly anticipated production of Das Liebesverbot fell through, Wagner was sunk in despair, as well as destitute. When a publisher offered him the job of correcting proofs for Donizetti's La favorita, as well as preparing a piano vocal score and arrangements for various instrumental combinations, he eagerly accepted. The resulting 19 duets derived from the opera are each attractive -- melodious and so idiomatically written for the instruments that, without knowing their provenance, the listener could easily accept them as works originally conceived for violin duet. Matthias Wollong and Jörg Fassmann perform them with energy, conviction,and a sweet, pure tone.
The problem with this recording is the producers' decision to connect the excerpts with a spoken narrative, written by opera director Michael Dißmeier, and read (in German) by actor Daniel Morgenroth. The narrative's brevity, however, amplifies the silliness of the contrived plot, and it ultimately comes across as a campy caricature of the dramaturgy of early nineteenth century bel canto operas. The producers seem not to have faith in the music itself, which could easily stand on its own, and they seem oblivious to the utilitarian impulse behind the creation of the wide variety of transcriptions of virtually every popular opera of the period. (Besides this arrangement, Wagner was also contracted to write versions for solo piano, piano four-hands, string quartet, and cornet and piano.) These arrangements were not published in order to duplicate the dramatic experience of the opera, as this recording attempts to do, but to give amateur musicians an opportunity to play and get to know the music. In our era of continuous access to recorded music, it's difficult to imagine a time in which hearing music was a rare and special experience. Apart from what you could sing or whistle to yourself, you only heard music in church, in concerts (which were commonplace only for the wealthy), or played or sung at home with family and friends. Most orchestral and operatic music was known only through chamber music arrangements geared toward amateurs. (Brahms famously stated that his fondest wish was to hear all the Beethoven symphonies played by orchestras, but he went to his grave without realizing his dream.) These duets weren't intended to be played through as a substitute for the operatic experience, but as individual pieces to delight and amuse the players and any listeners who happened to be within earshot. They can still delight the listener, who, through the marvel of modern technology, can simply skip over the narration, and enjoy the music.