Sunday, January 25, 2009

Returned to life

When I mentioned to two friends that I was seeing Haydn's Orfeo last weekend, they both said the same thing:

"Haydn wrote operas?"

Yes, he did, fifteen of 'em, although they've fallen from the standard repertory - indeed, Orfeo only debuted in 1951 (you read that right; Haydn never saw it performed). So in a way the opera, like its heroine, has been brought back from the dead. Its long obscurity may be due to the fact that it's a kind of mermaid-like half-opera/half-oratorio: a lost form which I will immediately christen the "opatorio." Certainly the music in Orfeo (full title: L'Anima del Filosofo [The Soul of Philosophy], ossia Orfeo ed Euridice) should have ensured its survival: here the great composer relaxes into a longer, more lyrical line, the choral passages are remarkable, and the action is studded with at least three brilliant arias: a lush introduction to Orpheus, a truly heartbreaking lament from Eurydice, and a sparkling coloratura turn from the Sibyl who leads Orpheus down among the shades. Hadyn also gives Creon (in this permutation of the myth, Eurydice's father) a darkly subtle musical presence, and throughout deploys the same palette of evocative color - a long harp solo here, a plaintive cry from the woodwinds there - that made The Creation and The Seasons such classics. He even ends the opera with what must be the most dramatic piece of music he ever wrote: a tempest that washes the mad Bacchantes (who have killed Orpheus) out to sea.

That said, you couldn't really argue that Orfeo succeeds as drama; the libretto adds random episodes to the story, and insists on the hero as a rational, rather than romantic, figure. Meanwhile the chorus is integrated into the musical action in a way that makes the "drama" feel a bit like a frieze. What's more, Orpheus and Eurydice seem to exist as Enlightenment talking points rather than characters, and their final separation passes without musical climax (!). Still, these odd gaps only point up the wisdom of a concert staging of the piece, which is what Handel and Haydn offered.

And a rather wonderful concert staging it was. Perhaps because the opera counts as a re-discovery, conductor Roger Norrington (above left) eschewed the eccentric flourishes with which he sometimes saddles the warhorses, and offered a straightforward, sensitive rendition of the score that only reminded one why he is one of the foremost interpreters of Haydn in the world. The orchestra sounded superb - with particular praise going to the harp and timpani (those final washing waves were expertly conjured), and the chorus was only a small step behind the instrumental standard (the women seemed a bit diffuse and thin in spots). Various members of the chorus also leapt into action as needed to play minor roles, a device which played up the "oratorio" side of things, but which also displayed to advantage the individual talents up there in the stands.

The soloists were by and large even more thrilling. As Eurydice, the lovely Sarah Coburn (right) brilliantly deployed a ripe romantic presence and a luminous vocal instrument that ran effortlessly up into the stratosphere. In her second turn as the Sibyl, she hardly changed her timbre or phrasing, alas, but her coloratura work was so sparkling you didn't care. She met her match (perhaps even more than her match) in Christopher Maltman, a baritone with the vocal size (and something of the depth) of a bass, and a subtle, intelligent intensity to match his vocal prowess. We'll be hearing more from both these two - hopefully a lot more. As Orpheus, meanwhile, tenor Andrew Kennedy sang with passion and a gently complex tone, but didn't really have the power to match even Coburn, much less Maltman; what's more, he seemed to be performing in a kind of emotive bubble, rather than relating to his co-stars in that implied way that even concert stagings demand. Elsewhere, he might have been compelling - but he seemed merely adequate amid such stunning company.

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