Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Haydn "deeply unsexy" ? The Return of Tobias

Is Haydn "deeply unsexy" as he's been described or is he a "radical, genius, entertainer" as the bicentenary celebrations at the South Bank would have it ? To challenge our assumptions, the series starts off with a rarity, The Return of Tobias.

Tobias was such a smash hit in 1775 that it raised the equivalent today of £100,000. All Vienna turned out to hear Nancy Storace and Stefano Mandini, now remembered for premiering Mozart, singing gorgeously before 180 musicians and choir. What an extravaganza, it must have been spectacular. Yet, when it was revived in 1808, it flopped and fell into obscurity. Audiences had discovered Mozart, who changed the whole way opera is heard. Haydn's reputation was firmly defined by The Creation, the symphonies, the chamber music. Mendelssohn's Elijah and Paulus revived the genre for a while, but biblical oratorio was eclipsed by more "modern" opera. Two hundred years later perhaps we can hear things from a different perspective.

Drama there is aplenty in Tobias, but the action takes place only in memory: when Tobias returns home he tells his parents about his adventures, which include killing a sea monster and the demon who strangled all 7 other bridegrooms his new wife Sara married before him. Stories told in reverse aren't necessarily a problem – Wagner did this often. Indeed, because there's no need for narrative action as such, the device affords opportunities to indulge in glorious arias and recitatives. Eighteenth century audiences weren't much bothered by characterization or psychological insight as long as the tunes were good.

And in Tobias, there are glorious moments indeed. Each singer has a showpiece to display his or her vocal prowess to stunning effect, wowing the listener into abject wonder. Anna, Tobias's mother, has some of the loveliest pieces, like Sudò il guerriero. She's just nagging her blind, old husband, but who cares when it's done with this much panache ? Later, Tobias brings the magic potion he got from the serpent he killed. "Delay could prove fatal", he urges, launching into a ten minute aria, followed by another elaborate aria by Anna and extended choral effusions. Tobit, of course, refuses the potion at first, giving rise to a very long recitative where the various singers can indulge in deliciously beautiful interchanges, though they're describing Tobit's agonized suffering as the poison takes hold. He gets cured, eventually, but 18th century audiences already knew the story and were more interested in extending the moment with trills and cadenzas.

Perhaps the best arias are written for Raffaelle, the angel, who accompanies Tobias on his adventure, disguised a traveller. The lines soar and glow. "Come se a voi parlasse un messagier del cielo" like a messenger from Heaven has spoken. It's amazingly effective, as theatre, as ideally the sound should project like rays of light.

What we heard last night was the tightened-up 1784 version, not that anyone was complaining it wasn't the even longer original. Music like this stands or falls on the quality of the singing, since it was designed primarily to display technical glory. Fortunately, that's what we got, too. Full review below

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