Resurrecting a Haydn Gem

Rebekah Ahrendt on August 14, 2007
In 1781, Joseph Haydn wrote to his publisher Artaria about recent performances of his Stabat Mater in Paris: "They were amazed to find me so exceptionally pleasing in vocal composition, but I am not amazed, and they have heard nothing yet; if only they could hear my short opera L'isola disabitata ... for I assure you that such work has not yet been heard in Paris, and perhaps not in Vienna either." Until now, this work had not even been heard in the Bay Area. Thanks to the hard work of maestro Tom Busse, four vocal soloists, and the City Concert Opera Orchestra, now it has — and it was exceptionally pleasing. Performing Monday night at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, Busse and the CCOO produced a convincing reading of Haydn's first and last setting of a text by Pietro Metastasio, the 18th century's preeminent librettist. Haydn had long been acquainted with the poet, having lived upstairs from him between 1751 and 1754. Through Metastasio, the young Haydn met many important people, including his eventual mentor, Nicola Porpora, whom Metastasio considered to be the first composer of L'isola disabitata in 1753. It may have been on that occasion that Porpora and Haydn became acquainted. But for whatever reason (probably the tastes of Prince Esterházy), Haydn himself did not take on Metastasio's work until 1779. To make this performance possible, Busse had to arrange a performing score and parts himself from surviving materials, as he explained in a lengthy program note. It is a sad fact that Haydn's great skill as a vocal composer has gone all but unnoticed; Monday night's performance was therefore an ear-opening experience for many audience members.

Rich Music on a Dry Isle

L'isola disabitata (The uninhabited isle) tells the rather predictable tale of a despairing woman (Costanza) who has been abandoned by her husband (Gernando) on an uninhabited island with her naive sister (Silvia) after stopping there when Costanza became seasick. Years later, Gernando and his faithful friend (Enrico) return — they had been captured by pirates. Marital vows are renewed, and love springs between young Silvia and Enrico. The characters are traced according to Metastasio's typical habit, as paragons of one-issue personalities: despair, true love, innocence, fidelity. Yet Haydn's music fleshes them out — and Paris and Vienna had perhaps never heard before such a rich contribution from the orchestra. The entire work has only seven arias; the rest is an extremely sonorous selection of accompanied recitative (no secco). For us recitative nuts, this is a great work. But accompanied recitative is tricky, and some problems were evident in this performance. As Costanza, mezzo-soprano Elspeth Franks was perfection and was completely in character for the entire performance. Her diction, pronunciation, and delivery of the complicated recitative texts were wholly moving. Her performance of the Scene 2 aria "Se non piange un' infelice" (If an unhappy woman does not weep) was regal and driven by emotion. I thought nothing could be better — that is, until her Scene 11 aria, "Ah, che in van per me pietoso" (Alack, vainly for me piteous time flies), which beautifully displayed Franks' many-faceted talent. The rich beauty of her voice and her huge range were highlighted by this aria's lyricism. At no point was Franks ever strained, nor did she push. She simply wrapped the audience in a plush blanket of sound.

Outsinging the Other Performers

She was so good that she managed to make even the stronger singers of the ensemble sound less great. Tenor Jos Milton as Gernando was effective, for the most part, especially in his sincere delivery of the recitatives, where his warm tone color was much appreciated. His star aria, "Non turbar quand' io me lagno" (Do not disturb my grief), suffered a bit from straining at the top of his range, but he negotiated well the many harmonic twists and turns. As Enrico, baritone Jeff Fields performed with just the right touch of buddy appeal. His characterization of Enrico spoke to the almost comic undertones of his character as a good guy willing to do anything to help his friend. Fields shone in the virtuosic aria "Chi nel cammin d'onore" (He who on the path of honor), a tour de force of heroic manliness (as well as an aria that Haydn added to the original text, perhaps to show off his own star baritone). Fields' interaction with the other performers was also excellent — I would like to see him in staged productions. Tiffany Cromartie as Silvia left something to be desired. Although she depicted well her character's starry-eyed naivete, she was hampered by a number of technical problems, including a seemingly inadequate acquaintance with Italian. Not good, especially in a work with so many long and tricky recitatives. But perhaps that belongs to the role — as the first Silvia was Haydn's young, attractive, and famously untalented mistress Luigia Polzelli. Cromartie's best moment was in the aria "Fra un dolce deliro" (In a sweet madness), but that might have been due to the charming duet between flautist Lars Johannessen and bassoonist Kate van Orden.

Instrumentalists Shine

The real stars of this production were the instrumentalists. Despite lacking some necessary tuning breaks for the strings, the musicians of the City Concert Opera Orchestra performed with passion and skill. And what an orchestral part Haydn here crafted. Reusing motifs throughout the work added to the drama of this little opera, yet most exciting was the last scene, which is basically a sinfonia concertante mixed with a buffo finale. All four singers were symbolically paired with instruments: violin and cello for Costanza and Gernando; flute and bassoon for Silvia and Enrico. Lisa Grodin on violin and Paul Hale on cello were brilliant counterparts to the phenomenal playing of Johannessen and van Orden. Their contributions were a tribute not only to Haydn's own orchestra but also to our skilled Bay Area players. Bravo to Tom Busse for pulling this all together, and pulling it off. At last, Haydn's wish that his short opera be heard elsewhere has come true in Berkeley.

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