Friday, 29 October 2010

Haydn L'isola disabitata - Young Artists

Joseph Haydn's operas are hardly unknown - even the genuinely obscure Il ritorno di Tobias has  several times in the last few years - in Rome and in London. L'isola disabitata,  a Young Artists presentation in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House proves decisively that the idea of Haydn being box office "unsexy" is ironic.

Full review in Opera Today HERE  It's MUCH better than this, so read the link. I wasn't feeling well when I wrote this so it's pretty basic. The "real" review is infinitely better. And production photos too. There's a review of the 2009 Gotham City Opera L'isola disabitata on Opera Today HERE. Although that involved Mark Morris,  it seems less successful production than the Young Artists in London, I think.

Written in 1799, just before the three best known operas, L'isola disabitata is enjoying a major revival all of its own,  thanks to the 2007 edition used here. This is Haydn for those who think they don't like the composer or don't even like baroque. It's short, snappy, and no high voices!

Because the programme notes cite the opening Sinfonia  as "an impressive example of Sturm und Drang", everyone's quoting that verbatim. What it means is that Haydn is responding to what were then modern ideas. Classical poise tempered high baroque opulence. Then, the turbulence of Sturm und Drang stirred up what was to become what we now call Romanticism. No wonder it's easier for modern audiences to relate to.

L'isola disabitata uses only four voices, distinctly defined and characterized.  Until they're united at the end, they sing alone, reflecting the characters' inability to link up. The orchestra's small - mainly strings, with only two horns, two oboes, bassoon and flute. Minimalist by 18th century standards. Perfect for the modern trend towards chamber opera. The plot's minimal, too. But that's its strength.

As with so much pre 19th century music, avoid long, elaborate libretti which confuse the real issues. In this case the plot's simple : keeping faith. Constanza (Elisabeth Meister) has been on a island for 13 years with her then infant sister Silvia (Anna Devin). Note her name - Constanza means "constancy".  Yet she's no doormat like Penelope who put up with Ulysses's wanderings. Constanza thinks she's been deserted so she gets mad. She spends the years carving deep graffiti into a rock, cursing her husband .

Just as she's about to give up and die, Gernando (Steven Ebel), her husband, turns up on the island. He didn't run off, he was kidnapped and he's come back to save her. So faith conquers adversity, no matter how ludicrous the plotline. Silvia and Enrico (Daniel Grice), Enrico's sidekick, form a romantic subplot that jazzes up the almost existentialist anomie of the basic Constanza story.

Even the island's only a framing device to the basic idea. Jamie Vartan's set reflects Constanza's emotional landscape - she's desolate, ruined, shattered because she put so much faith in marriage.  The smoke, the rocks - all there in the text. Silvia on the other hand is completely feral, having grown up in isolation. She's shocked about Enrico's anatomy, (though Hadyn doesn't make this too explicit) because she's known nothing but Constanza's bitterness against men. But nature wins over nurture.

It's a surprisingly modern storyline, once you get away from mythical trappings which even Hadyn doesn't indulge in. Musically, it's also "modern", the voice parts direct and communicative, without excess adornment. The orchestra follows the words intimately. Sometimes one instrument shadowing a voice. In the Sinfonia that serves as overture, you can hear glimpses of Haydn as symphonist. He doesn't need to overpower to make his point. Prototype Mozart, rather than musical dead end.

Elisabeth Meister and Steven Ebel excel. Both have been  prominent in the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme for some time, and have been heard many times in smaller roles in the main House. Meister memorably stepped in at short notice to sing the Fox in the Cunning Little Vixen. She sang with Ebel in Ebel's The Truth about Love at the Linbury last year. (read Steven Ebel's interview on Rilke). He also sang Rimenes in Arne's Atarxerxes.

Daniel Grice's Enrico was also good - I'd like to hear more of him. Anna Devin's singing was rather obscured because she had to jump about so much. It's in keeping with the idea of Silvia as a feral child unfettered by society, so director Rodula Gaitanou and movement director Mandy Demetriou  are making a valid point,  but even wild animals aren't manic.

But the point of Young Artists presentations is learning through experience. There's more to performance than technical prowess. Life skills count too. Please read "Polishing gemstones" where Simona Mihai and Kai Rüütel speak on the benefits of the Programme, one of the most highly regarded in Europe. The scheme also trains people in all aspects of opera, such as the conductor Volker Krafft, the director, designer, lighting and fighting. It's tough being a creative artist especially in this financial climate. But if this excellent performance of Haydn L'isola disabitata is anything to go by, the Young Artists have proved themselves.

Photo credits : Elisabeth Meister : Brian Tarr, Steven Ebel : Novo Artists

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