Haydn’s The Return of Tobias – OAE/Norrington

The Return of Tobias [Revised Version]

Rachel Nicholls & Lucy Crowe (sopranos)
Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)

Joyful Company of Singers

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 10 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Queen Elizabeth Hall was packed to bursting-point with an audience eager to discover Haydn’s other oratorio. Haydn enthusiasts know of “The Return of Tobias”, the oratorio which predates “The Creation” and “The Seasons” by more than twenty years, yet very few will have heard it.

Sir Roger Norrington The 200th-anniversary of Haydn’s death this year offers a welcome opportunity to unearth and assess such important and neglected parts of his prolific output. Step forward Sir Roger Norrington and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: if anyone can breathe new life into forgotten repertoire it’s this dynamic duo. They, and the excellent team of soloists, certainly didn’t disappoint; though whether “Tobias” proved itself likely to establish a firm foothold in concert programmes is more debatable.

Though a great success at its first performances in 1775 in Vienna, and still popular enough ten years later to merit a (revised) revival, by the early 19th-century “Tobias” was already appearing very old-fashioned – especially in comparison with “The Creation” and “The Seasons”. These enduringly popular works were modelled on Handel’s oratorios, with their abundance of lively and integral choruses; “Tobias”, in contrast, stems from the much dryer Neapolitan tradition of sequences of bravura da capo arias strung together with lengthy recitatives and the occasional chorus for variety – in effect sacred opera.

It is not hard to determine why “Tobias” fell out of fashion, nor why it has not seen the light of day since. Devoid of drama (the plot, which could be summarised in a couple of sentences, limps along with excruciating slowness), there is nothing to sustain interest besides the operatic arias (of which more in a moment); and choral societies are hardly likely to champion a work in which choirs have so little to do – even taking the 1784 revision into account (performed here) with its additional couple of choruses.

But what “Tobias” does have, and what Norrington and company did proud, is a succession of splendid arias – nearly every one a gem. With flair, stylistic sensitivity and absolute commitment, each member of the cast delivered mesmerising performances. Rachel Nicholls, stepping in at short notice for an indisposed Grace Davidson, deserves special praise for her unfaltering coloratura (though understandably glued to the scored, she resembled a rabbit-in-headlights in appearance only). Christopher Maltman’s rock-solid tones leant an appropriately stentorian quality to Tobit, the blind father of Tobias.

The work’s standout aria, ‘Come in sogno’, fell to rich-voiced Ann Hallenberg, Tobias’s mother: a vivid nightmare scene with dramatic use of trombones and churning strings, reinforced by a ferociously turbulent chorus (powerfully rendered by the Joyful Company of Singers). This is Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ writing at its best, a prototype for the violent summer storm in “The Seasons”.

The most delightful singing of the night came from Andrew Kennedy in the title role and Lucy Crowe as Sara, his new bride: well-matched in their artless, silken tones, both breezing through Haydn’s fiendishly high (and – in the case of Crowe’s ‘Del cara sposo’ – low) coloratura with breathtaking ease.

Norrington and the OAE made a compelling case for the music, revelling in its relaxed, pastoral charm and making the most of its dramatic contrasts. Less extrovert and varied than his later oratorios, “The Return of Tobias” will always suffer in comparison. Yet, standing in its own right, this is a highly significant work that brims with glorious music. Thanks to Norrington and all the performers for bringing it so wonderfully to our attention – we shouldn’t have to wait until Haydn’s next big anniversary to hear it again.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 6 July 2009
  • OAE

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