Orpheus and Eurydice by Carlo Cignani (1628-1719)
O everlasting gods! I see your lovely eyes and
your beautiful face, and yet I cannot believe my
These are the sentiments of Orpheus on being reunited with Eurydice in Hades, but they are also the standard reaction to a Pinchgut Opera performance. Or, more precisely: I cannot believe my ears that something so sublimely beautiful could be extracted from that neglected material.
L’anima del Filosofo, Joseph Haydn’s version of Orpheus and Eurydice, is their ninth production, and since all the others have been brilliant I have no hesitation in recommending it without yet having seen it.
Pinchgut is an opera company that stages a baroque opera once a year, for four performances in Sydney’s City Recital Hall in the first week of December.
Rather than produce tried and tasted repertoire, Pinchgut usually resurrect forgotten masterpieces, rarely (or never) performed. When these are pieces by first-rank composers like Vivaldi (Juditha Triumphans, 2007) or Charpentier (Jonathan and David, 2008), the question is ‘How on earth did this get lost?’; when they are by obscure people like Francesco Cavalli (L’Ormindo, 2009), it becomes ‘Why on earth isn’t this guy better known?’.
This year’s production is in the first category. Haydn is better known for his 104 symphonies than for his dozen or so operas. L’anima del Filosofo was in fact Haydn’s last opera, commissioned in 1791 in London, with a libretto by someone called Bedini, about whom the wikipedia entry remains to be written.
The planned production at The King’s Theatre was cancelled, and the work was not performed until 1951 in a production in Florence with Maria Callas.
The myth of Orpheus was the single most popular subject for operas in the early days of the genre, partly because it promotes its own virtues as a product — arguing that song has the power to unlock the gates of Hell — and partly because a musical perfomance forms part of the story, perhaps to help to make the audience accept the idea of a stage drama being sung.
Haydn’s opera music is on the cusp of baroque and classical: at times it sounds like Handel and others like Mozart, but the orchestral parts in particular have Haydn’s light touch, familiar from the symphonies. But according to H. C. Robbins Landon, who was apparently the the last word in these matters, this work also reveals ‘the composer’s uncanny ability to create a doom-ridden atmosphere.’ And if there’s one uncanny ability it’s handy to possess in this situation, it’s the uncanny ability to create a doom-ridden atmosphere.
As a possessor of Christopher Hogwood’s recording with Cecilia Bartoli, I can testify that the music is absolutely marvelous from start (a ripping overture) to finish (a brilliant chorus, by turns dramatic and reflective). Along the way there are several superb arias. For a sample, you couldn’t do better than these best two clips, both, as it happens, featuring the miraculous Cecilia: a stage version of ‘Filomena abbandonata’ with some Asaro mudmen from the New Guinea highlands; and a concert version of ‘Al tuo seno fortunato’, which is supposed to be one of the most difficult coloratura arias around — it doesn’t sound that easy to me. The choruses, which will be sung by the amazing Cantillation, should be powerful too; having been unable to use choruses in his other operas at the Eszterházy Court, Haydn went overboard with them in this one.
The performances are on 2,4,5 and 7 December (Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday.) Book here.