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Haydn in plain sight

The operas of Franz Josef Haydn are seldom presented in the great opera houses of the world, but then, they weren’t composed for the great opera houses of his own world. Esterháza is a country house with a 400-seat theater; Haydn was on staff and on call. He had a troupe of singers and musicians and was expected to keep them occupied. What with operas, plays and concerts, they gave about 125 performances each summer. The current festival there gives fewer.  

The little theater had a reputation that even Empress Maria Theresa commended. If she was pleased, Prince Esterhazy was pleased, and that in turn made Haydn happy. His operas tend to be intimate and comic, and were sometimes designed for marionettes. The grandeur, the castrati, the highfalutin sentiments of court opera would have been out of place. A visit to Vienna for Don Giovanni supposedly convinced Haydn that opera was beyond his range, and he never wrote another—but his Orlando Paladino (1782) remained popular throughout Germany for the rest of the century.

Orlando Paladino treats the operatically familiar tale of Ariosto’s warrior, distracted from his knightly destiny by (unrequited) love and the witchcraft required to knock some sense back into him, but even in this “serious” story, Haydn’s treatment is playful, near-parody, and the psychology is superficial. We behold the follies of his aristocrats and the amorous fooling of the lower class figures without uneasy reflection: They’re no realer than Alcina’s magical powers, but the tunes are lovely.

The production playing the Manhattan School of Music (through Sunday) takes as its cue a phenomenon recently written up in The New Yorker: a tendency of young paranoiacs to imagine they are constantly on camera, their lives a “reality show.” According to director Robin Guarino, Orlando suffers from this ailment, enhanced by popping pills and snorting cocaine. He therefore menaces the plighted lovers, Angelica and Medoro, and can only be cured (by the sorceress Alcina, in this version a glamorous-malevolent psychiatrist) by a dose of electroshock.

Descent into the Underworld for general sorting out of personal problems (in the original libretto) becomes an extended group therapy session. Is a visit to a madhouse the new standard Regie cliché? Well, no one believes in the Underworld anymore and some psychotropic drugs are suitable to vocal characterization. The youthful MSM cast rejoices in the opportunity to display its considerable acting chops.

The voices are all attractive but, on Wednesday night, took some time to warm up. In Act I, there was a general shortness of breath, a sense that Haydn desired another note or two above or below each singer’s comfort zone. The decision of (I presume) director Guarino and maestro Christian Capocaccia to cut so much from the show that it could be reduced to about two hours of music and two acts (from three) served some performers better than others.

Orlando has two extended accompanied recitatives of mania followed by full arias, and Elliott Page sang them prettily, in a sizable and shapely tenor that lacked dramatic force, perhaps covered up by the crazy behavior demanded by the directorial concept. This, however, was undercut by his staring at the conductor at all times. Orlando’s madness is what drives the plot, and to have little threat behind it leaves a vacancy. His principal antagonist, Alcina, was sung by Margaret Newcomb, an impressive performer in MSM’s Nina, la pazza per amore, but her role here was reduced to one aria and a number of recitative dicta that suggested a lithe power she had little chance to display.

The star of the evening was baritone Cameron Johnson as Pasquale, Orlando’s buffo valet, who falls in love with a shepherdess (here, a supervisor with clipboard and tight jeans) named Eurilla, soprano Kerstin Bauer. Haydn wrote two of the most charming numbers in the score for them, and they tear up the town: A boastful aria for Pasquale about his prowess at singing (higher than a castrato, lower than a basso, and he must sing both ranges at those points, and does) and a flirtatious, quizzing number for Eurilla, into which bumbling Pasquale interjects the vowel sounds in sequence as monosyllabic responses.

Johnson, a cute barihunk-in-training, leaps about the stage imitating the dance moves of a dozen pop celebs while presenting his suave vocal technique. This aria should be his audition piece for the next five years; it brought down the house. It would kill on Jimmy Fallon. He all but equaled this feat with his erotic moans of A, E, I, O and U to Bauer’s witty catechism of love.

Leela Subramaniam had the prima donna role of Angelica of Cathay, unhappy object of Orlando’s attentions, a part that included one and a half suicide attempts and much vocal display. Her sound has more body, more distinction, than many young sopranos. Her coloratura was smudgy in Act I, cleaner in Act II—this is the aspect of her voice that could use attention. Thomas Mulder was her Medoro, and his rather whitish tenor seemed proper for this ineffectual and unheroic lover—he spent much of Act II hiding under a sheet or removing his shirt.

Kidon Choi sang the rumbustious Rodomante, King of Barbary, invited in by Alcina to confront Orlando. Or that’s his role in Haydn’s setting. I was never sure of his function in this production but I was glad he was there. He had the largest, the most even and the most enjoyable voice of the entire company, a burly but lustrous baritone of the sort that thrives in later composers. (He’s sung Amonasro and Rigoletto in his native Korea.)

The MSM orchestra was well-schooled in a score that always pleased the ear without offering the sort of delicious witticisms that the contemporary Mozart seemed always to have at his fingertips.

31 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    For a deeper understanding of the subject:


  • m. croche says:

    A visit to Vienna for Don Giovanni supposedly convinced Haydn that opera was beyond his range, and he never wrote another—

    Huh?

    Whaddabout “L’Anima del filosofo” ossia “Orfeo e Euridice” (1791)?

    Haydn saw Don Giovanni in May, 1788.

    • m. croche says:

      closing up the italics….

      • m. croche says:

        (and, of course, “ed”)

      • m. croche says:

        (and, of course, “ed”)

        • -Ed. says:

          You rang??

          • m. croche says:

            (-Ed.), you’re never here when I need you. What’s up with that?

            • -Ed. says:

              I was tired. I was busy.
              (Don’t ya just love that line from The Lion in Winter?!)

              Actually I was traveling to Florida yesterday. I’m here now. House hunting.

        • grimoaldo says:

          The reviewer may be thinking of the fact that when the opera house in Prague wanted to commission an opera from Haydn, he declined, saying that Mozart had written operas for them and they should continue to commission operas from Mozart, not Haydn.
          However it is not true that “he never wrote another opera” as m croche says and Haydn said nothing about opera being “outside his range”. His operas, except his last, were written for entertainment at his employers’ palaces etc, they are perfectly adequate for that purpose.
          “His operas … were sometimes designed for marionettes.”
          Yes, in addition to the opera house at Eszterháza there was a specially constructed marionette theatre, which no longer exists.

          • m. croche says:

            Boy, I do love me some marionette theater. My impression is that marionette opera can still be found pretty regularly in Central Europe, but not, alas, in the.U.S.

            Imagine having a free, outdoor marionette opera set up on warm evenings outside the met, with the puppets performing excerpts from the season’s offerings. Don’t tell me there aren’t puppeteers in Brooklyn who wouldn’t jump at the chance. Easy draw for kids, introduces them to stories, etc.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

              As part of Cecilia Bartoli’s Salzburger Pfingstenfestspiele, there are three afternoon performances of “Il barbiere di Siviglia” by the Salzburger Marionettentheater using the 1989 Decca recording with Bartoli and Nucci as the soundtrack. However, free it is not: tickets range from €25 to €35, but two of the shows are already sold out.

            • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

              Respighi shared your love of marionettes. In his correspondence he wrote about how satisfying it was after a performance just to pack the performers in boxes or hang them up on racks without having to deal with any tantrums or singer antics.

  • Krunoslav says:

    Johnson was cute but throroughly forgettable vocally in MSM’s recent Cavalli venture. Glad to hear he did better here.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Just watched the video of Kent Nagano’s Goeteborg concert version of TROUBLE IN TAHITI, in which the handsome young American baritone Nicholas Pallesen makes a very fine impression. He has already won important competitions and made his MET debut. Here’s hoping he will have an important and long career.

    • Hippolyte says:

      Not sure what this is doing in a thread about a Haydn opera, but Pallesen is about to star as Fieramosca in the new Terry Gilliam production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at London’s ENO (where the production’s other two principals are also American, Michael Spyres and Corinne Winters).

      • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        I’m happy the he will be in the new Benvenuto Cellini, but Fieramosca is far from being a “star” role. Pallesen should do well with the little blustery aria, but his voice is inherently more beautiful than that role requires.

      • Nwoolz says:

        I don’t know Pallesen, but judging from the clip he should make a fine Fieramosca. Of course, the role requires a comic sensibility, equal to that of a Sixtus Beckmesser. We’ll see how he does. :)

  • Ilka Saro says:

    John Y, thanks so much! I can’t say that I’m all that interested in the opera, but I have never seen or heard the term “rumbustious” before, and I love it! While it may not exactly be onomatpoeia, it seems to me that this is a word that “sounds” exactly like its meaning.

  • The Conte says:

    Thanks for the EweTube links Quanto. Apart from the finale it’s not an opera I know. However, I find Haydn easier on the ear than Mozart, even if Haydn’s characterisation is rather shallow in the operas of his I know.

    A professional Australian lutist acquaintance of mine swears by Haydn’s symphonies and quartets and rates them far above Mozart’s. Is that sacriledge?

    • manou says:

      Just one “d” away from it.

    • Krunoslav says:

      I’d say that the greatest of Haydn’s string quartets are indeed greater than Mozart’s.

      If you’re unfamiliar with them, I’d start with Opus 64. I like the Tokyo String Quartet set, and --if you like something more H.I.P.-- the Quatuor Mosaiques.

      I don’t think any of his symphonies are greater than, say, Mozart’s #40.

    • m. croche says:

      The thing is -- you don’t have to say which one is best. They have different personalities, different artistic preferences. There are things Haydn does in his music which Mozart doesn’t do, and vice-versa. Even the earliest of Haydn’s symphonies and quartets (yes, even the quartets that predate the seminal Op. 20) have things of interest in them, and a lot of moments of tremendous beauty. The piano trios which Haydn wrote in the 1790s are also extraordinary, not to mention all those masses and oratorios.

      Rather than blather on about the endless number of felicitous details in even obscure Haydn works, which would take me a month, I’ll just quote myself from a previous parterre post about one movement of one early symphony.

      The winsome slow movement (beginning here around the 3:50 mark) of Haydn’s Symphony #16 has long been a favorite. It’s mostly two part counterpoint throughout (compare with the ingenious opening of the first movement!), but it’s the sonority that really makes this movement special. A solo cello doubles the violins at the octave, violas double the bass at the octave. Melodies in octaves were considered in dubious taste at the time — the sort of thing associated with light and frivolous music. The melody halts after the first two bars, as though one had temporarily lost a train of thought — no one before Haydn understood so well how to make silence speak volumes. After this initial hesitation, the tune, against all expectations, spins out unpredictably in a meandering melodic stroll The overall effect here is magical, containing haunting echoes of a moonlight serenade, yet (and with Haydn there’s always a “yet”) achieving these effects (mostly) with “simple” two-part counterpoint…

      I’d have to say that Haydn is the composer who has brought the most joy to my life. If I could take but one person’s works with me to the desert island, I would without hesitation choose his.

      • grimoaldo says:

        Haydn is vastly under-appreciated in my opinion, perhaps because his music tends to be rather happy and sunny and people prefer a certain amount of angst. The majority of his compositions were written for the entertainment of vastly wealthy aristocrats, that may have something to do with why it is mostly “upbeat”.
        Haydn was not entirely happy about spending all that time as the servant of a princely family, the compositions he wrote for London, when he said something like “how sweet this freedom is” show another side of him.
        “Drumroll” symphony conducted by the great Marc Minkowski-


        Unfortunately Haydn’s symphonies are not played very often in standard orchestral concerts, I would go more often if they were whereas nothing will induce me to pay money to sit through Brahms Mahler or Bruckner.

        • armerjacquino says:

          L’INCONTRO IMPROVVISO has two of Haydn’s greatest operatic moments- the bravura aria ‘Or Vicina a Te’ in the second act and an extraordinary female trio, ‘Mi Sembra Un Sogno’ in the first act which ought to be one of the most famous ensembles in opera.

          Wonderfully sung in this recording by Linda Zoghby (aria and trio), Margaret Marshall and Della Jones.

      • brunettino says:

        Three minutes in and it’s sublime. I have been wanting to buy an entire Haydn symphony box -- this is quite an inducement to do that. Mille grazie.

        • brunettino says:

          This was for M Croche’s symphony post but the others are grand, too., of course. Danke vielmals.

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Kruno: Thank you for that commentary about the H. quartets. I agree
    with you on the Tokyo Q. — super fine!
    And along that line, are you acquainted with the series of five discs
    from Chandos of the marvelous French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzt’s
    performances of Haydn sonatas? They are sonically beautiful, played
    on a modern Yamaha, which magicially M. Bavouzet makes sound just
    right for the tingly-tinkly music of the amazing Haydn. This is great
    pianism, beautifully recorded, of charming — though not really
    important — music. Enjoy!

    • Krunoslav says:

      No, but thanks, I will seek it out. I have fairly mainstream Haydn pianism on disc: Richard Goode and Leif Ove Andsnes among others.

  • operaassport says:

    Alma Gluck’s son has died. Efrem Zimbalist Jr outlived his famous mother by more than 75 years.