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Valerie Ogbonnaya (Silvia) [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera]
15 Mar 2009

Haydn’s L’Isola Disabitata by Gotham Chamber Opera

Had a misunderstanding with your truelove lately? Tough job straightening things out?

F. J. Haydn: L’Isola Disabitata

Costanza: Takesha Meshé Kizart; Silvia: Valerie Ogbonnaya; Gernando: Vale Rideout; Enrico: Tom Corbeil. Conducted by Neal Goren; staged by Mark Morris. Gotham Chamber Opera.

Above: Valerie Ogbonnaya (Silvia)

All photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera


Lovers, consider Gernando’s problem: He and his Costanza were visiting a desert island one day, thirteen years ago, when, without a word of warning, he vanished. Naturally she is peeved. When getting food and shelter (for herself and an infant sister, her only companion) have not distracted her, she has spent her spare time carving diatribes against the male sex in the rock. But he has a perfectly reasonable excuse — he was kidnapped by pirates! At last he has returned to the uninhabited island (“l’isola disabitata”) to see if she survives — she does! In sound health, good looks and a rather chic grass skirt! (Nothing like a healthy diet and lots of sleep to keep a diva limber.)

You can imagine what Mozart would have made of this absurd situation: He’d have gone wild, ten minutes at least of bitter reproaches, intricate descriptions (sung and orchestral) of his agonies, of her agonies, then joyous resolution as she gradually succumbs to his desperate pleas of enduring love…. Things would get completely out of hand, the duet would become a thing ungainly, unbalancing the brief exposition allowed by Metastasio’s libretto — but, by Thalia, it would be fun! It would be melodrama! In a Haydn opera, however, nothing is out of proportion and hardly anything is ever fun, or dramatic, or exciting. The singers are supposed to supply that, if they can, and the half-fledged cast of the Gotham Chamber Opera presentation are just not up to it, though they sound pleasant enough.

They probably trained on Mozart and Handel, and Mozart and Handel were men whose eyes lit up at the word “theatre” — they knew how to tell a story on the stage. It was in their blood somehow, and it passed right by Haydn. An opera to him might as well have been a string quartet with scenery. Hardly any of his operas were performed in urban centers in his lifetime — they were composed for the court theater at the country estate of Esterháza (a homey little 400-seat affair which today hosts a festival), and at Esterháza they remained. That meant they were not written for the great singers of the day, and also that the scores did not have to woo a popular audience — as Gluck did, or Mozart, or Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Salieri, Grétry. One learns things about opera construction if one’s listeners are paying customers, throwing tomatoes or simply not returning for more. Modern opera composers, mostly academics, suffer the same lack of apprenticeship that afflicted Haydn, with the same effect. Haydn knew it, too — when asked by a Prague producer for one of his opere buffe, he replied that none of his works for Esterháza was suitable for public presentation, and that he would be wary in any case of trying to compete on Mozart’s territory.

L'ISOLA-Photo-1.png(Left to Right) Valerie Ogbonnaya, Tom Corbeil, Takesha Meshé Kizart and Vale Rideout

But back to L’Isola Disabitata, which has just been presented by Gotham Chamber Opera, with great fanfare, in a staging by Mark Morris. The piece was composed in 1779 (the year of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride), shortly after a fire at Esterháza, and apparently the reconstruction budget permitted just one set, four characters, and no chorus. The opera is a succession of arias for four characters whose emotions are both predictable and shallow. There is one striking novelty, probably inspired by Gluck’s reforms: the singing is accompanied by orchestra throughout; there is no continuo to set off dialogue from arias. But Gluck knew how to build tension and how to bully his librettist into supplying the occasion for such tension. There is little tension in the score of L’Isola Disabitata. The opera concludes after a few predictable encounters with a vaudeville quartet in the French style: each character sings of what she or he has learned, to variants of a rondo melody, and they depart enlightened. The most famous such finale is that of Mozart’s Seraglio (1782), which states the moral clearly, but is enriched by the explosive intrusion (in an unsatisfied minor key) of the one character who has never changed and never will — to our thorough delight. Haydn would never have introduced something so tasteless, even in a farce. (He wrote several; none are performed very often.)

L'ISOLA-Photo-8.pngTakesha Meshé Kizart and Tom Corbeil

The GCO set was a revolving rock. One problem the cast may have had was in performing while maintaining balance on this thing, and the contortions involved in seeing or pretending not to see other characters, as called for by the script, surely did not help. The only obvious sign of Mark Morris influence came in hand-jive charades performed by each character in turn during the final quartet — this was charming, keeping our attention, heightening the individuality of Haydn’s generic characters, settling the plot happily.

The young, attractive performers may have left school a few years ago, but they all sounded like promising music students here. This is not a compliment: there was little that was “finished” about these performances and nothing that was deep. Perhaps, again, it is Haydn’s fault: Mozart gives you characters to play, with human quirks and expressions; so does Rossini; so does Paisiello. Haydn does not. It’s only play-acting, right? Why try to make these people real? (An apocryphal story has it that when Haydn attended the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, he realized how very out of his depth he was and gave up composing opera then and there. It may be true; Haydn had taste, judgment and good sense; he admired Mozart and would have grasped his achievement better than just about anyone else alive.)

For Takesha Meshé Kizart, the Costanza, company artistic director Neil Goren replaced the opening aria with one of Haydn’s many concert arias — that is, a piece written to suit the talents of an individual singer in the revival of a longer work written for someone else, a perfectly canonical practice. But the effect here was not good, as her performance was lackluster — only her second, rather more agitated aria seemed to wake her up, and her situation (thirteen years in solitary?) led us to expect rather more fireworks than she cared to offer. Her spousal unit, Vale Rideout, and his half-naked sidekick, Tom Corbeil, made pleasant, uninteresting sounds perhaps awkwardly placed due to their distance from the floor when singing. The only performer with much charm or distinction was the soubrette, Valerie Ogbonnaya, as Costanza’s naïve sister, a “Miranda” figure, whose innocence of the world (and of men) are intended to give us a thrill of contrast: she gave her character the light, fresh sound and airy coloratura proper to the dainty drama. The character is absurd, a sophisticated fantasy, but she sang and acted it as if it were something worth putting over.

I’m delighted at the notion of a chamber opera company in New York, and in the idea of exploring lesser-known crannies of the eighteenth century, but Haydn’s operas are not where his heart, or his genius, lay. With all possible good wishes for Gotham’s success in its downright heroic work in the current economic times, the company has made some weird repertory choices over the years; in the eighteenth century, for one thing, they would be better advised to examine composers like Paisiello and Grétry and Martín y Soler who knew how to write for the stage.

John Yohalem

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