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Sarah Coburn (Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)
16 Aug 2007

Haydn’s L’Anima del Filosofo (Orfeo ed Eurydice) — A rare performance at Glimmerglass this summer, as part of their “Orpheus” 2007 Festival Season

On a cold winter’s day in Vienna, just before Christmas 1790, Mr. Haydn dined with Mr. Mozart for the last time.

F. J. Haydn: L’Anima del Filosofo
Above: Sarah Coburn (Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)

 

Within a year the younger man would be dead, and the older would be in London putting the finishing touches to an opera that never saw the light of day in full public performance until, in 1951 it was staged in Florence with Maria Callas, Boris Christoff and Tygge Tyggeson in the leading roles. This is just part of the strange story of an opera that nearly never was, because although Haydn was fully paid in advance for his version of the Orfeo and Eurydice legend by the London-based impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, it became the victim of politics and critical machinations that finally prevented it from opening at all.

Haydn was happy enough with the project (being paid in advance must have helped) and described the libretto, by Carlo Badini, as “entirely different from that of Glück’s”. What he didn’t say was that said Badini was also famed for his destructive gossip and very influential critical writings which could literally make or break a theatre’s reputation at that time. In this writing of the famous tale, the story starts with Eurydice fleeing the unwanted attentions of her father’s favoured suitor for her, and becoming the focus of Orfeo’s love; however, by the end of Act One she is dead from a snake-bite. The rest of the four acts concern Orfeo’s struggle to retrieve her from Hades, his famous error, and in this version of the tale, his eventual destruction by the Bacchae women, enraged by his avowed shunning of women’s love following his final loss of Eurydice.

There were only 3 main roles in the opera that Haydn wrote — Orfeo, written for leading tenor of the time Giacomo Davide who was described later as possessing “a clear and flexible voice, with an extensive falsetto”, Eurydice, sung by soprano Rosa Lops and the Genio (an oracle/soothsayer figure) who was apparently to be sung by a not-very-good castrato of the time, possibly one Signor Dorelli. Confusingly, by the time the opera came to rehearsal, there was another role included in the MS — that of Creonte, father of Eurydice. Sadly, despite getting to dress-rehearsal, local politics prevented the King’s Theatre from opening on time and Haydn never saw his opera open to the public.

It is no wonder then that this particular operatic version of the famous myth fell into that huge abyss of “forgotten” works as the late18th century geared itself up for the immense musical developments on the horizon. Yet, it is a jewel of its time, with some stunning music as well as dramatic vigour and this 2007 Glimmerglass concert performance has been looked forward to for some time by those who remember or have heard, either Callas in ’51, the 1967 live recording by Dame Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda at the Edinburgh Festival, or of course the more recent revival by Cecilia Bartoli.

However, it was rather a disappointment to find that circumstances and time constraints had yielded some pretty savage cuts here on the shores of Lake Otsego. Michael Macleod, the new General and Artistic Director, explained that he had been anxious to do something meaningful on the traditional Sunday morning slot on Gala Weekend in this his first year at the helm of the Festival Opera. What better than to maintain the ethic of Glimmerglass and make more good music with a little known take on the myth, and better still, a work by one of his great loves, Haydn? Sadly, the time available between the 11 am start and the afternoon matinee at 3 pm of the staged L'Orfeo by Monteverdi meant that the concert performance was truncated with huge swathes of recitative removed. The story was moved on succinctly but prosaically by an on-stage Narrator, and several arias also cut.

What was left seemed more a showcase for soprano Sarah Coburn, an opportunity this technically elegant singer took full advantage of. She sang the arias of Eurydice and the Genio (the latter's big number “Al tuo seno fortunate” being eerily reminiscent of Mozart's Queen of the Night’s) with precision (mostly) and vocal poise. Not exciting, but obviously well-read and produced with only fleeting glances at the score before her. Equally effective was the baritone of young Corey Crider as Creonte. Much less successful was the Orfeo of tenor Norman Shankle, who appeared both nervous and under-prepared, his hands (and eyes) never far from the printed music, and his production sounding unsure and tentative, at best. This curate’s egg of a production was held together by some nice idiomatic playing by the Opera Orchestra, with special mention going to the flutes, under the shared batons of Antony Walker and Anne Manson.

Mr. MacLeod explained afterwards that the reason for the split duties for the conductors was part of a process of selection for vacant post of the Festival’s next Music Director. Whatever the reason, it was a rather novel experience for the audience as the two conductors had two very different styles, although it was hard to split them on the resultant sound.

The performance is repeated on the 19th August.

© Sue Loder 2007

For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office (607) 547-2255 and more information from the website: http://www.glimmerglass.org/Haydn.html

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