Haydn Italian Arias – Thomas Quasthoff

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Haydn
L’Infedeltà Delusa – Non v’è rimedio
Orlando Paladino – Mille lampi d’accese faville; Ombre insepolte
Armida – Se dal suo braccio oppresso; Teco lo guida al campo
L’Isola Disabitata – Chi nel cammin d’onore
La Fedeltà Premiata – Di questo audace ferro; Mi dica il mio signore; Sappi che la bellezza
L’Incontro Improvviso – Noi pariamo santarelli
La Vera Costanza – Non sparate … mi disdico
Il Mondo della Luna – Che mondo amabile; *Non aver di me sospetto
L’Anima del Filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice – Chi spira e non spera; Il pensier sta negli oggetti; Mai non sia inulto

Arias composed by Haydn for insertion into works of other composers:
Bianchi
Il Disertore – Un cor sì tenero in petto forte
Salieri
La Scuola de’ Gelosi – Dice benissimo chi si marita

Thomas Quasthoff (baritone)

Genia Kühmeier (soprano)*

Freiburg Barockorchester
Gottfried von der Goltz

Recorded July 2008 in Hans-Rosbaud-Studio (SWR), Baden-Baden


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: April 2009
CD No: DG 477 7469
Duration: 63 minutes

oeuvre was a ripe candidate for re-discovery, perhaps even for access to the standard repertoire. Decca’s complete symphony cycle with Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica was followed by a series of the composer’s Italian operas, also with Dorati directing. The casts contained some of the star names of the time: Arleen Auger, Jessye Norman, Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Luigi Alva, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Renato Bruson and Benjamin Luxon. I owned the first issues myself but failed to recognise any individuality or theatrical flair and my interest petered out. The initial impact was to kick-start sporadic productions of some of the operas but no lasting momentum built up and it now seems clear that a fringe position for these works is the best that their devotees can hope for.

The shortcomings of Haydn’s operas are not difficult to discern. The convoluted plots (several with pietistic titles), the disconcerting mixing of two or more genres, as in “Orlando Paladino”, which contains tragic, comic, supernatural and pastoral elements, and the prevalence of stock situations, are handicaps. The use of classic opera themes (and texts) from Ariosto, Goldoni, Metastasio and Tasso and the revisiting of territory already explored by composers such as Cimarosa and Gluck suggest that Haydn was unlikely to stretch the bounds of the genre. Accusations of relative lack of skill in incorporating vocal solos and ensembles in the construction of a dramatic whole have robbed the complete works of a place in critical and audience esteem.

Nevertheless, few have ever contested the joy to be obtained from individual numbers in Haydn’s operas and Thomas Quasthoff makes a strong case for them in this selection, which includes a couple of insertions into other composers’ operas that Haydn presented between 1775 and 1790 at Esterháza.

One or two of the arias from Haydn’s own operas are on the dull side, especially when they merely follow the format and conventions of an opera seria aria. Idreno’s first act aria from “Armida” is an example. However, Haydn compensates later in the work with a suitably ambiguous setting of the Saracen King’s feigned offer of reconciliation, the latter embodied in an alluring, high-lying vocal line but underpinned by martial trumpets betraying his true intentions.

The application of the instrumental picture-painting with which we are familiar from “The Creation” and “The Seasons” is frequently conspicuous. Villotto’s aria from “La Vera Costanza” has firework noises in the final section, where he is caught between the domineering attitude of the Baroness and the physical threat of the Count’s firearm, a situation which causes dizziness comparable to the noisy revolutions of a Catherine-wheel!

It may be significant that some of the best of these vocal pieces benefit from the composer’s mastery of instrumental music. Calender’s aria from “L’Incontro Improvviso” seems like an exercise in symphonic structure, with clearly defined first and second subjects, a development section, recapitulation and coda, all applied to the setting with imagination and originality. Haydn’s writing for winds is as delightful here as in his symphonies. The embroidery of the flutes in Creon’s noble first Act aria from “L’Anima del Filosofo” reinforces a particularly successful performance. They appear again in his Act Three aria. The horns play a similarly gratifying role in one of the interpolated arias, the one for the Salieri work.

“L’Isola Disabitata” benefits from a libretto by Metastasio and has the reputation of being a more subtle and restrained work. Dramatically its economy (only two pairs of balanced characters) makes it more suitable for staging. Musically Enrico’s aria extolling the duty of the recipient of generosity to reward it with gratitude contains a deal of ingenuity. The opening section re-appears in the minor key, the accents on “non palpita, non langue” portray the steadfastness the character should display, then the voice hovers on the repeated harmonic ambiguity of “per lui spargendo il sangue” before resolving into the final decisive lines. Strangely, this is not Quasthoff’s most assured performance: though bold in the leaps that Haydn has written, he is less comfortable in the short moving passages and lacks a trill.

The pseudo-heroic aria of Count Perruchetto in “La Fedeltà Premiata” is far from formulaic. With the character’s feelings encompassing fear and exasperation and his declamation the lofty and peremptory, the music is multi-sectioned, constantly going off in different directions. The furious scale-writing for lower strings receives razor-sharp articulation from the Freiburg orchestra. The vocal colouring here is matched by the portrayal of the devious Melibeo in his two arias. In the first the tonal characterisation makes it possible for us to picture him clearly trying to persuade the Count that the latter should accept his analogy of rivalry between love-struck bulls and jealous humans. The fawning tone he adopts for this piece is replaced by a more overtly buffo approach in his Act Two aria, complete with a low E flat belly laugh.

An unusually wide range is one of Quasthoff’s singular possessions. In “L’Infedeltà Delusa”, Nanni’s declaration of rage against his beloved’s father for engineering an arranged marriage for his daughter (and Nanni’s beloved) requires him to drop two octaves, F to F, which he does with aplomb. His enunciation of the text is characteristically precise throughout.

The majority of the roles that Quasthoff impersonates here are buffo ones, several of them doltish. Buonafede in “Il Mondo della Luna” falls for the promise that he can be transported to paradise on the moon. While most of the items in this selection are up-tempo, his waking aria is a lilting allegretto; he adds his own whistling to the woodwind’s bird-song. The following duet, in which he attempts to woo Lisetta, is a none-too-vicious battle of wits, starting as a gentle andante and ending with a busy 6/8. Quasthoff catches the character’s clumsiness and is supported by the dark soprano of Genia Kühmeier.

The recording produces a faithful representation of the string sound in both warm and explosive mode. Voice and instruments are well balanced, with the one exception of Charon’s tranquil song from “Orlando Paladino”, in which the voice retreats behind the orchestra.

It would be a loss to abandon Haydn’s operas altogether. If one concludes that the complete works are non-viable, then a mixed recital of individual numbers can still be rewarding. The pleasure to be enjoyed from the bass and bass-baritone roles has been well exploited here by Quasthoff. Now DG or another enterprising record publisher might turn to the emotionally more heavyweight music for other voices in the operas. Diana Damrau would be my choice for the soprano arias.

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