Mendelssohn‘s Camacho: an opera to see with your eyes closed. The (lengthy) letter which Mendelssohn sent to his librettist on 16 January 1824 bears witness to his precocious knowledge of the principles of theatrical writing. One can hardly believe that the author of this letter was only 15 years old. If we are skeptical at first, then we are dumbfounded when we look at the score: the brilliant characterization of the various roles, the inventive writing of the inner voices (Mendelssohn had acquired a Bach’s copy of St. Matthew Passion at the end of 1823), and the professionalism of the orchestration. A present-day performance, one with the instruments as Mendelssohn would have known it, shows the orchestration in an even more remarkable light because the linear character of the string writing becomes clearer and the winds sound more colorful, even forming their own orchestra-within-an-orchestra, far more than would be the case in a performance with ‘modern’ instruments.
The sixteen-year-old Mendelssohn drew more inspiration from the libretto than it actually contained. The music far overreaches the dramatic limitations of the text. Not only the solo and chorus parts but also the orchestra are, as a result, so expressive that a careful staging of the piece would not even add that much to the total effect. The neglect with which this work has been treated and its resulting unfamiliarity are typical mistakes of the kind sometimes made by history; ‘Camacho’ may well be the most brilliant opera ever written by a youthful composer. It is an opera to see with your eyes closed.
Jos van Immerseel, august 1993
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