Philips has gathered together their recordings of eight of the nine surviving Eszterháza operas (others are lost or in fragmented form) in these two boxes.
Under Antal Dorati, who made Haydn one of his specialities, not least through the recordings of the complete cycle of symphonies, the performances here are consistent in their integrity, and conducted with authority and affection.
If occasionally, an allegro is on the stately side, better this than a helter-skelter rush the bane of so many so-called authentic performances where notes cannot be articulated properly. Overall, tempi are extremely well judged and aptly fitted to the requirements of both score and drama.
The Lucerne Chamber Orchestra are not what would now be termed a period band for many, this will be a commendation in itself. Its members play admirably throughout. The string strength is larger than that which Haydn would have had at its disposal, but that lends a welcome weight to the ensemble. Bass lines are firmly felt, which lays a sure foundation to the whole. Wind playing is invariably attractive, with some particularly pellucid sounds from the principal players. Haydn was working within a comparatively restricted palette, with the strings (they are kept extremely busy) supplemented by oboes, bassoons and horns, with occasional contributions from flute and clarinet the latter encouraging Haydn to pen some mellifluous melodic lines. Still rarer are incursions from trumpets and timpani, invariably deployed in scenes of a martial character.
The majority of these operas are, in essence, light-hearted, though Haydn never loses an opportunity for repose and reflection when these present themselves. But it would be idle to pretend that, engaging as they are, these operas approach the dramatic or psychologically insightful qualities displayed by Haydns young contemporary Mozart. Haydn perceptively recognised this for himself when, in 1787, he declined an opportunity to present an opera in Prague, where the first production of Mozarts Don Giovanni had been given, by declaring that scarcely any man could brook comparison with the great Mozart.
There is, however, some curious foreshadowing of Mozart in the spirited quality of much of the music. Indeed the opening of the overture to Armida (the final Eszterháza opera and a wholly serious one) features a phrase virtually identical to that used by Mozart in the Quintet in Act 1 of Die Zauberflöte. Such moments must surely be purely co-incidental. Similarly, there are some proto-Rossinian passages in the buffo patter-like utterances of Pasquale in Orlando Paladino characterfully sung here by Domenico Trimarchi and in the cumulative effect of the finale of the first act of that opera.
The principal roles actually there are very few minor characters as such throughout this series were written for the leading singers of the day, and they often present some very formidable vocal challenges, with coloratura writing which suggests that Haydn had more than a passing acquaintance with Handelian vocal style.
Suffice it to say that in these performances, there are no serious weaknesses. Philips was able to engage some very strong casts, even if some were at the outset of their international careers. Frederica von Stade is a case in point. Her touching portrayal of Amaranta in the Dramma pastorale giocoso, La Fedeltà Premiata is one of the high points of the first box.
And these characters need convincing singers, as one of the drawbacks to a number of these operas lies in the fact that there is not a lot of distinction between the various people presented in the drama. One could go almost as far as to describe many of them as stock characters the knight, the sorceress, the shepherdess, and so on and Haydn does not always command the variety of portrayal that might have given these operas a chance to secure a foothold in the repertoire beyond the confines of Eszterháza.
Haydn was content to operate within the confines of operatic forms and structures as he found them, but that is not to say that he doesnt place his own stamp on the musical construction. There are some delightfully unexpected chords at cadence points, and some very effective and sudden changes of key to heighten dramatic tension. Particularly noteworthy is the sudden shifts from major to minor (less often vice-versa), anticipating some of Schuberts harmonic writing.
Equally, there are some very long arias in which one can admire if not always be affected by Haydns resourcefulness and fluidity of technique. Were the singers to be less than convincing, these would unquestionably outstay their welcome. Fortunately, that is not the case here. Indeed, for the best part of the twenty hours it takes to undertake a traversal of these operas, there is scarcely a moment that does not compel attention. And when the concerted numbers (especially the finales) take flight as they invariably do we can sense the composers spirits rising, and so do those of cast, orchestra and conductor.
But appreciation indeed, comprehension of Haydns operas as presented by Philips in these re-issues, is very seriously compromised by the absence of librettos and translations. The first time they appeared on CD, each opera was housed in a separate slipcase, with individual notes, texts and translations. Now the operas are in cardboard sleeves, with one booklet (per box) containing short summaries of the plots and an informative if brief introductory note reproduced in both sets.
This is totally unsatisfactory and renders most of the intricacies of the plots all but impossible to follow. The recitatives and there are many of them are lengthy (although a few insignificant cuts have been made) and unless one commands fluent Italian, one is at a loss to know what is going on.
I am advised by Universal that because the boxes are at budget price, they have been unable to include such essential materials. I would hope they might re-consider this policy. EMI, for instance, makes librettos for budget re-issues available on their website.
This serious caveat aside, however, these recordings serve as important documents, since the operas are so rarely performed and most do not have rival recorded versions. The only serious competition is for Armida, from Harnoncourt on Teldec, with the fiery Cecilia Bartoli. Jessye Norman is a rather more dignified sorceress convincing in her own way, and for some ears she will be preferable to Bartolis aspirated delivery of runs, though the latters blistering approach is undeniably and dramatically effective.
Haydns last opera Orfeo ed Euridice, from 1791 is not included, presumably on the grounds that it was not written for Eszterháza. It was not produced during the composers lifetime and had to wait until 1951 for its premiere, with Callas as the heroine. Bartoli has also recorded this, under Hogwood, for LOiseau Lyre.
But turning back to these Philips sets, I came away with renewed admiration for Haydns sheer resourcefulness and fecundity of invention prodigious seems too inadequate a word to describe his ability to respond to both character and action in these generally rather contrived and artificial librettos. Were I to recommend one of these sets to the potential purchaser, it would probably be the first, which provides the more variety, with the machinations of Armida and the knightly deeds of Orlando Paladino providing considerable interest and diversion.
One suspects that Haydn responded more readily to the dramatic situations they encapsulate than to the gentler, more pastoral, goings-on found in some of the other operas such as Linfedeltà delusa, charming though this and the other operas are in the second box and winningly performed here. Haydn also fails to evoke the more exotic locales for Lincontro improvviso (Cairo) and Lisola disabitata (a desert island). But I would be loath to dispense with Il mondo della luna, with its elixir causing those who drink it to imagine they are travelling to the moon. Here Haydns wit is readily to the fore and, not surprisingly, this is the one opera from those collected here that has had an occasional staging although not, it seems, a subsequent recording. Besides which, this second box contains attractive pendants in the form of arias Haydn composed for interpolation into operas by other composers, the performances of which he supervised at Eszterháza.
It is perhaps rueful to reflect whether a project of this kind would be undertaken now, but we must be grateful that 30 or so years ago, Philips had the foresight to engage these casts under the authoritative guidance of Antal Dorati in order to capture this remote corner of the operatic repertoire for posterity.
- Box No.1, including La fedeltà premiata & Orlando paladino, is on PHILIPS 473 476-2 10 CDs with a playing time of 9 hours 55 minutes
- Box No.2, including Lincontro improvviso, Il mondo della luna, and additional Arias, is on PHILIPS 473 851-2, 10 CDs with a playing time of 9 hours 57 minutes