15 Jun 2009

Haydn’s Bicentenary : 20 Capitals Salute “The Creation” With Standing Ovations

The Austrian Ministry of Culture and the Committee for the Celebrations of Haydn’s Bicentenary had a brilliant idea: on May 31st , the day of the composer’s death, 20 symphony orchestras and/or opera houses performed one of his greatest and best known oratorios Die Schöpfung (The Creation) .

Because of different time-zones, Die Schöpfung day started in New Zealand and ended in Honolulu. An earnest radio listener could enjoy the different performances over 24 hours and appreciate the difference in conducting as well as in singing. Opera houses were included because in certain countries (e.g. Germany) Die Schöpfung is also staged as a music drama: computer technology and animation are a superb support to show the initial chaos , the creation of the animals, of the flowers, of the lakes, of the rivers and of the mountain as well as the Eden garden with the passionate Adam and Eve duet.

In Rome, the Orchestra Sinfonica - Fondazione Roma (OsFr) was selected for the task. The OsFr is a peculiarity in the Italian musical landscape: it is the only fully private symphony orchestra. It does not receive any State, Regional., Provincial or Municipal support but it is financed by the Fondazione Roma ( a nonprofit foundation) and by a few companies. It has 90 permanent elements (average age: 30), a budget which is less than one-fifth of that of the main symphony orchestra in the Italian capital (l’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia) and a low- priced ticket policy to attract young and old people with modest income (season tickets for 30 concerts vary from € 260 to € 90 according to the category). Its music director and permanent conductor is Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, who is also principal guest conductor of the Berliner Symphoniker. La Vecchia has been music director of Opera Houses and symphony orchestras in Central Europe (Budapest), Latin America (Rio de Janeiro) and Portugal (Lisbon). The OsFr started some eight years ago after a EU-supported training program for young graduates from European conservatories. It has gained an important place in the international music scenes also due to its tournée in Germany, Poland and China.

In January, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia had offered a different version of Die Schöpfung — performed by Frieburger Barochester conducted by René Jacobs and with Julia Kleiter, Donat Havar and Johanner Weisser as soloists. The difference, of course, is not in the score (both Jacobs and La Vecchia conducted the full score without cuts or intermission) but in the style: dry, albeit almost religious, Jacobs’; passionate (even in the approach to religion) La Vecchia’s .

Die Schöpfung is well known. Thus, there is no need to provide Opera Today readers with background on its composition, on its Austrian and London premières and on its contents. Its three parts are operatic acts. In the first and in the second, the three archangels Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael observe the Creation by following very closely the biblical text. In the third act, we are no longer witnessing from a distance the works of the Creator. The scene is the Eden Garden. After an introduction of Uriel, the act is long love scene of Adam and Eve that includes a duet supported by a choral background. As Haydn planned, there are five characters but three singers: the bass and the soprano are Raphael and Gabriel in the first and second act but become Adam and Eve in the third act. The roles are taxing both for the duration (nearly two hours of music ) and for the “virtuoso” singing — they imply “coloratura”, “agility”, quite a few high Cs and many Fs.


Maestro La Vecchia recalls that in 1992 he had conducted Die Schöpfung in the Amazonian Forest, at the vey confluence of the Rio Branco with the Rio Petro. Over 10,000 Indios attended the performance thrilled by the Haydn’s score. Most likely, the memory of that performance influenced conducting on May 31st. In the first part, it is noteworthy how conductor, orchestra and singers amplified the transition from the chaos (C minor) to the newly lit world (A major) . In the second act, the emphasis is on the descriptive imagery as in the portrayal of the animals: the cheerful, but rude, trombone blast of the lion, the pouncing tiger, the placing grazing of cattle, the sinuous music for the worm. The third act is less contemplative than normally performed: the love between Adam and Eve is powerful, not merely platonic; their duet is rapturous and timeless, an essential transition to the glorious final chorus.

La Vecchia and the symphony orchestra had three excellent singers to work with. Anita Selvaggio is a “soprano assoluto” better known outside Italy than in her own country. Both as an archangel and as Eve she displayed a a remarkable flexibility in the upper extension and an extraordinary use of messa di voce (a quality that many sopranos seem neither to care for nor to practice enough). Michael Smallwood is an up-and-coming Australian tenor with a delicate sensuous “legato”. David Wilson Johson is the best known of the three soloists. He once again confirmed his talent and versatility.

Giuseppe Pennisi (Based On May 31st Rome Symphony Orchestra Performance)