Classical, Early Music, Opera
Pinchgut Live PG001 (2 CDs)
Reviewed by Anthony Linden Jones, April 25th, 2014
This recording compiled from live performances of Haydn’s final opera is a revelation. The first CD produced by Pinchgut Opera under the label Pinchgut Live, the recording captures the energy of the performances without sacrificing quality, apart from a couple of moments of harshness on the recording of Elena Xanthoudakis’ voice.
Following the death of his patron Prince Nikolaus in 1790, Joseph Haydn was granted the freedom to travel from the Esterházy court, accepting a lucrative offer to travel to London for an extended stay from 1791-92. During that time and a subsequent visit in 1794-95, he wrote some of his best-loved symphonies and chamber works as well as the opera L’Anima del Filosofo which was to be performed at the King’s Theatre in London (now, Her Majesty’s Theatre). Unfortunately, due to a conflict over licensing for the theatre to produce opera, the work was not performed in Haydn’s lifetime. In fact, at the declaration of the licensing issue, Haydn is said to have downed tools. There are some researchers who speculate that the work in its current state is unfinished. On receiving the original commission, Haydn wrote to a friend describing the work as being of five acts rather than the four of its present form. That could certainly explain the dramatically abrupt ending, which perhaps Haydn had intended to draw out further! Nevertheless, Haydn appears to have taken great pride in the work, including it in lists of his most-favoured compositions.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been the subject of opera since its earliest implementations at the end of the sixteenth century. Haydn was at pains to point out that the libretto for his opera, written by Carlo Badini, was ‘entirely different from that of Gluck’s’, a ground-breaking opera which had preceded his by thirty years. Unlike the Gluck piece, things do not all end well as Orpheus is dragged to Hades by the Bacchae who try unsuccessfully to tempt him.
A late example of opera seria, Haydn’s opera is weighed down by excessive use of recitativo, mostly secco with voice accompanied only by continuo. But the arias and chorus pieces are glorious!
The male soloists Goodwin, Welton and Everingham are solid and Andrew Goodwin’s duets with Eurydice are quite gorgeous within the better parts of his range, but it is the voice of Elena Xanthoudakis which shines throughout the production. The soloists’ voices are beautifully and capably supported by the superb voices of Cantillation.
The beautiful elegance of the first half is dramatically contrasted by the technically flashy and sometimes violent textures of the second. This is evidenced by two contrasting arias which well demonstrate the range of Xanthoudakis’ vocal expression. ‘Del Mio Core il Voto Estremo’ is sung in gentle sobs in her dying breath (Eurydice’s first death). Singing as the Sybil, ‘Al Tuo Seno Fortunato Stringerai L’Amato’ is a dramatic show piece that shows her facility up to a high E (at A = 415Hz), and returns an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Conforming to the Pinchgut ethos of period performance, the instruments, carefully detailed in the CD booklet, are either eighteenth century originals or recreations. The wooden flutes have a considerably softer, more subtle tone than their modern counterparts. A particularly colourful addition is the harp, played by Genevieve Lang. Haydn was himself a harpist, having learnt from his father. It is used as the principal accompanying instrument to beguile the hostile shepherds intent on sacrificing Eurydice, in Orpheus’ beautiful aria ‘Rendete a Questo Seno’.
With so many recitativo secco throughout the work, accompanied only by continuo, the use of fortepiano here is inescapable. To my ear, the balance is not quite right, with the fortepiano a little eager. Other recordings I have heard feature either fortepiano or harpsichord but settled further behind the voices.
While the piece exhibits some structural problems, there are some particularly gorgeous moments, and this recording captures the energy of what must have been a spectacular performance — another superb recording from Pinchgut Opera.