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05 Nov 2019

Haydn's La fedeltà premiata impresses at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

‘Exit, pursued by an octopus.’ The London Underground insignia in the centre of the curtain-drop at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Silk Street Theatre, advised patrons arriving for the performance of Joseph Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded, 1780) that their Tube journey had terminated in ‘Arcadia’ - though this was not the pastoral idyll of Polixenes’ Bohemia but a parody of paradise more notable for its amatory anarchy than any utopian harmony.

Haydn: La fedeltà premiata, Guildhall School of Music and Drama

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Chorus, Matthew Palmer (Perruchetto) and Adam Maxey (Melibeo)

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

 

Haydn’s opera mixes seria and buffa elements, and while it delights in ridiculing classical pomp and presumption - the Act 2 finale openly parodies the coro di Furie from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice - there are also moments of genuine pathos and musical sincerity. First performed at Eszterháza on 25th February 1781, La fedeltà premiata celebrated the reopening of the court theatre after a fire. It was much admired: revised in 1782, it went on to receive 36 performances in four seasons, second only in popularity to Haydn’s dramma eroico, Armida; in 1784 a performance was given, in German translation, by Schikaneder’s troupe in Vienna. Thereafter it fell into obscurity, though the overture remained familiar - in its guise as the finale of his Symphony No.73, La Chasse - and one scene (Celia’s ‘Ah come il core’) was published as a cantata for soprano and orchestra.

The dismantled and dispersed manuscript was eventually ‘rediscovered’ in Turin and in 1968 a complete score was published for the first time by Henle-Verlag. The first modern performance took place at the Holland Festival in 1970, the first UK staged performance occurred as part of the Camden Festival in April 1971, and since then both Glyndebourne (1979) and Garsington (1995) have presented productions, as have some of London’s conservatoires.

If La fedeltà premiata has, like the dozen so operas by Haydn that have survived, struggled to find a foothold in the opera house, then it can’t be denied that Haydn did give his audience at Eszterháza much eventful extravagance and spectacle. Sea-monsters and satyrs are on the rampage. A wild boar separates the heroes from the hysterics, sending the philandering ‘Count’ Perrucchetto - whose name literally means ‘wig-maker’ - clambering up a tree-cum-stepladder, while the noble Fileno shows his mettle by slaying the beast.

Eline Vandenheede, Adam Maxey.jpg Eline Vandenheede (Amaranta), Adam Maxey (Melibeo). Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.

There’s a colourful cast of characters too, including Melibeo, the crooked High Priest (here looking like the Witch-Finder General in his menacing leather coat and gloves, though his spy-goggles were designed to wheedle out faithful lovers than that supposed sorceresses), and Amaranta, a grand ‘lady’ who hails from the sticks but gives herself airs and graces. Flirtatiousness and falsehood seem to be leading to tragedy before an honest swain’s self-sacrifice sees the sea-monster struck by a thunderbolt and its lair transformed into the Temple of Diana: the goddess descends, deus ex machina, the true lovers are re-united and all live happily ever after.

The finer details of the plot of Giambattista Lorenzi’s libretto remained elusive, though, even after this engaging and committed performance of Stephen Barlow’s new production by the postgraduate students of GSMD. In the first scene, Amaranta essentially sets out the stall by reading the inscription on the Temple of Diana which proclaims that, ‘Every year two faithful lovers will be sacrificed to the sea monster until a heroic soul offers his own life. Only then will peace return to the land of Cumae’.

So, the hunt begins for a pair of faithful lovers to appease the goddess of hunting and chastity, the chase being led by Melibeo who has his own lustful eye on Amaranta. The problem is that faithful lovers are in short supply, not least because to publicly declare one’s true devotion would mean certain death. There thus ensues a parade of private professions of love and swift public denials: necessity makes a virtue of fickleness. Essentially Nerina loves Lindoro (Amaranta’s brother), but he loves Celia (who is Fillide in disguise), who in turn loves Fileno (who, for an unexplained reason, thinks Fillide is dead - bitten by a snake, presumably a wry nod to Gluck). Perruchetto loves everyone, especially himself. The intrigues, betrayals and back-tracking pile up until Melibeo, exasperated by the repeated thwarting of his plans to matchmake some lovers whose death will revoke the curse, and by Amaranta’s wild wilfulness, imprisons Celia in a cave with Perruchetto, presumably assuming that she will emerge unchaste. When she insists upon her preserved purity, he determines that they will be serve to satisfy the sea monster anyway, prompting Fileno to offer himself as a sacrifice instead. Cue Diana, waving her magic wand - and skilfully wielding her long-bow to strike the dastardly Melibeo with an arrow.

Ema Nikolovska, Robert Lewis.jpgEma Nikolovska (Celia), Robert Lewis (Fileno). Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Barlow suggests that when he read through the libretto, his first thought was that it was essentially an episode of Love Island. Fortunately, his reflections did not stop there, and his production is a charmingly insouciant mishmash of pseudo-antiquity, eighteenth-century Classicism and modern-day motifs - a burlesque which effortlessly blends past and present, exposing the foibles of others and ourselves.

Against a Claude Lorrain ‘landscape with piping shepherd’ back-cloth, Adrian Linford’s set slopes rakishly down from a tentacle-embossed seascape, across a Delphic shrine, towards the run-down back entrance of a hostelry. A ‘ceiling’ open to the skies enhances the artifice. Amaranta arrives, larger than life in floral mantua and high wig, and precedes to smash her way through the devotional relics, sending floral and edible offerings flying - noisily. Perruchetto wheels in on a roaring motorbike - his ‘luxuriant’ locks trailing behind him in the breeze - in search of a bottle, or two, of Bordeaux and a girl to swig it with. A Cambridge punt, stacked with trunks, tomes and teddy-bear facilitates Fileno’s entrance, his cricket whites gleaming under lighting designer David Howe’s Elysian sunbeams. Nerinda’s polka-dot cigarette pants are a walking advertisement for 50s’ style and the sharp-suited Lindoro matched her for sartorial elegance.

At times the lighting emphasises the artificiality of proceedings, elsewhere the sincerity of the sung sentiments. In the latter stages, several arias are sung just before the soloist leaves the stage, and Barlow foregrounds the theatrical pretence, and the opera’s eighteenth-century origins, by having the singers return to the stage to formally accept the applause post-aria. Similarly, a trap-door provided a welcome store of props as required.

Haydn may be criticised for lacking Mozart’s theatrical nous and insight into human relations. But, his score is wonderful, the seven main characters well-drawn, and the sentiments of any scene or number absolutely clear whatever the surrounding chaos. There is wit and lyricism, and much terrific music for the singers to get their teeth into, and the first of two casts were uniformly excellent. As satyrs and shepherds, the Chorus were equally warm and hearty of voice.

Lara Müller, Damian Arnold.jpgLara Maria Müller (Nerina), Damian Arnold (Lindoro). Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.

As the seria lovers Robert Lewis (Fileno) and Ema Nikolovska (Celia) had a fine ear for the extended lyricism of their arias. Celia may be disguised as a parasol-bearing shepherdess, but her nobility shone through in the pair’s first act cavatina duet, while Nikolovska assured shaped the imaginatively, and challengingly, structured ‘Ah come il core’ in which Celia contemplates her death. Her second aria was beautifully enhanced by an impressive horn solo, and some fine violin and bassoon playing. Lewis pulled off the tricky task of embodying the swooning swain, balancing absurdity - when etching his suicide note into the tree his arrow snaps - and honest heroism in the opera’s final moments. He had a fine way with the recitative. Lara Marie Müller was a pert and natty Nerinda, but she also exploited the tenderness in Haydn’s music. Damian Arnold’s Lindoro employed an occasional, and fittingly self-absorbed, sob in his voice - especially when the melodrama ran high.

Haydn gives Amaranta some strikingly sophisticated arias which suggest there is more to the wild child than initially meets the eye, and Eline Vandenheede impressed in a frenzied rage aria and, especially in the tragic ‘Del amor mio fedele’ in which Amarante’s humanity shone through her humorous excess. Matthew Palmer’s Perruchetto was borderline unhinged but vocally secure and had a musical and dramatic appeal, and madcap energy, which suggested he would make a good Papageno. I’ve admired Adam Maxey’s stage presence and suave, dark baritone in several performances of late and he excelled again as the ugly, unctuous Melibeo, resisting the temptation to overplay his dramatic hand and letting Haydn’s music do the work. Siân Dicker was an exuberant Diana and Mian Shahmir Samee a calm fluting presence.

Conductor Alice Farnham drew crisp playing from the GSMD Orchestra. The overture was brisk and clean, the horn playing vibrant. It’s a long play, and there are some sequences of slow arias which demand concentration and care, but there was no sense of flagging dramatic drive.

In a letter of 1781, Haydn declared his confidence that his operas would be assured of success if only they could be performed in one of the great cultural centres of Europe: ‘… if only they could hear my Operette [L’isola disabitata] and my most recently composed opera, La fedeltà premiata, for I assure you that such work has not yet been heard in Paris, and perhaps not in Vienna either. My misfortune is that I live in the country.’ After this enjoyable evening - imaginative, technically impressive - I couldn’t help think that if only we heard Haydn’s operas more frequently today, in productions so full of witty ingenuity, our own praise for his theatrical endeavours might be less frequently diluted by comparisons with Mozart.

Claire Seymour

Haydn: La fedeltà premiata

Amaranta - Eline Vandenheede, Nerina - Lara Marie Müller, Celia - Ena Nikolovska, Fileno - Robert Lewis, Lindoro - Damian Arnold, Perruccetto - Matthew Palmer, Melibeo - Adam Maxey, Diana - Siân Dicker, Flauto - Mian Shahmir Samee; Director - Stephen Barlow, Conductor - Alice Farnham, Designer - Adrian Linford, Lighting designer - David Howe.

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama; Monday 4 th November 2019.

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