The operas of Joseph Haydn are far less well known today than those of his older contemporary Gluck and his younger contemporary Mozart. No Haydn opera has ever been performed on the main stages of New York's Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, or the San Francisco Opera, at least according to a recent search of their online archives. And the relative obscurity of his operas was true in the 18th century as well, even though by the 1790s Haydn was the most famous composer in the world.
Haydn wrote more than a dozen Italian operas, plus four Italian comedies (which, like his half-dozen German Singspiele, had spoken dialogue instead of recitative, and may have been intended for a marionette theater*). But they were not widely known because they were not generally presented in public theaters. Instead they were performed in the court theater at Esterháza, the rural Hungarian estate of the Esterházy dynasty, for a select audience of Haydn's aristocratic patrons and their guests. (After 1766 Haydn supervised all of the musical activities at the court, including more than a thousand performances of opera—many by other composers.)
But after the Esterháza musical establishment was disbanded in 1790 on the death of Haydn's principal patron Prince Nicolaus, Haydn's operas fell into a neglect from which they have yet to fully recover.
By a stroke of luck I recently came across several recordings of Haydn operas at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and what follows is a brief survey of my impressions:
Antal Doráti and the Esterháza operas
Between 1975 and 1981 Hungarian-born conductor Antal Doráti recorded eight of the surviving Esterháza operas with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and a group of wonderful singers, among them Frederica von Stade, Arleen Augér, Ileana Cotrubas, Elly Ameling, Edith Mathis, Renato Bruson, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Benjamin Luxon. It was an extraordinary undertaking, requiring a major commitment from conductor, performers, and the Philips record label. For most of the operas it must have been the first, and for many it remains the only, recording ever attempted.
Doráti's Esterháza-sized orchestra does not play on period instruments—the early music movement was just beginning to gather momentum in the 1970s—but then there are also many modern-instrument recordings of Mozart. The one place where these versions feel dated is in Doráti's approach to the recitative, which is so deliberate that it's almost Wagnerian. Most of Haydn's operas are comedies, and so the energy can sometimes flag between the arias. But otherwise these recordings remain highly enjoyable today:
L'Incontro Improvviso (The Unexpected Meeting, 1775): A woman and her female companion(s) are abducted by a sultan and held in his harem, while her betrothed and his servant frantically try to rescue them. While imprisoned, the woman defies the sultan in a brilliant showcase aria filled with coloratura runs and leaping intervals. If you're familiar with Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Rescue from the Harem), all this probably sounds pretty familiar. But Haydn's opera was written six years before Mozart's. (Both composers were probably inspired by Gluck's 1764 opera Le recontre imprévue. Haydn's opera was a new setting of an Italian adaptation of Le recontre's French libretto, and Mozart may have seen a 1780 Vienna revival of Gluck's opera).
Apart from its "Turkish"-style music, the opera is especially notable for "Mi sembra un sogno," a lovely soprano trio for the melancholy captives. The singers are Linda Zoghby (Princess Rezia), Margaret Marshall (Balkis) and Della Jones (Dardane):
Il Mondo della Luna (The World on the Moon, 1777): With the possible exception of L’Infedeltà Delusa (Infidelity Outwitted, 1773), Il Mondo della Luna is probably Haydn's best-known opera. It features an old fool, Buonafede, who lusts after his young maid Lisetta while trying to thwart the suitors of his two daughters Flaminia and Clarice. One of the suitors, Ecclitico, convinces Buonafede that by consuming a "magic elixir" he can visit the Moon (really Ecclitico's garden). The amazed Buonafede is tricked into approving the marriages of three Moon couples—in reality, of course, the three young women and their chosen lovers. There have been several recent productions, including a delightful-looking performance in New York's Hayden Planetarium by the Gotham Chamber Opera company, directed by Diane Paulus:
Here is the duet "Ah, se tu vuoi ch'io viva," in which both Celia (Lucia Valentini Terrani) and Fileno (Tonny Landy) believe they are parting forever:
Period-instrument performances with Cecilia Bartoli
Cecilia Bartoli has championed the overlooked music of many composers, and a decade ago recorded two of Haydn's late opere serie with leading period-instrument orchestras:
Armida (1784): The one thing no performance of Armida can do without is a passionate Armida, the Saracen sorceress who seduces the Christian knight Rinaldo (Christoph Prégardien) into switching sides during the siege of Jerusalem. Bartoli's portrayal conveys all of Armida's wild swings of emotion, from tenderness to anguish to implacable rage. Recorded in concert with the Concentus Musicus Wien and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2000, this version features a good supporting cast that includes Patricia Petibon as Zelmira, the sultan's daughter who falls in love with another Christian knight, Clotarco (Markus Schäfer). Harnoncourt provides plenty of drive for the infernal demons, raging storms and fierce battles depicted in Haydn's music. And Bartoli sings both thrillingly and beautifully, as in "Se pietade avete, oh Numi":
Armida was the last opera Haydn wrote for Esterháza, and it was one of the most frequently performed there. This was also the rare Haydn opera that received productions elsewhere, including Vienna, which may have led to the commission for Haydn's next (and final) opera,
L'Anima del Filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Eurydice, 1791): After Prince Nicolaus' death in 1790 Haydn was free to accept outside (extra-Esterháza?) commissions. The impresarios Johann Salomon and Sir John Gallini brought Haydn to London and asked him to write a new set of symphonies and an opera. But the producers couldn't manage to procure a license for the King's Theater, and so today we speak of Haydn's "London Symphonies" but not his "London Opera." The first staged performance of L'Anima didn't occur until 1951; it had Erich Kleiber conducting and, as Euridice, a rising star named Maria Callas.
Bartoli was an established star when she took on the double roles of Euridice and Genio (the Sibyl who guides Orfeo (Uwe Heilman) through the Underworld) in conductor Christopher Hogwood's 1997 recording. It's a spectacular opera with a prominent role for the chorus. Here is Bartoli as Genio in the showcase aria "Al tuo seno fortunato":
L'Anima ends with the eternal loss of Euridice, the death of Orfeo, and a violent storm that sweeps away the deadly Bacchantes who are responsible for Orfeo's death. Unlike the versions by Monteverdi and Gluck, there's no happy ending here; there is, though, a lot of splendid scene-painting music.
I've been delighted to discover Haydn the opera composer. Haydn's librettos are often criticized, but they were usually written or adapted from the leading librettists of the day, including Carlo Goldoni. And the music is wonderful. There are echoes of Gluck and pre-echoes of Mozart, and most of it is superlative. I can only hope enterprising opera companies will forego the umpteenth production of L'Elisir D'Amore or Die Lustige Witwe and give us a well-staged production of a Haydn opera instead.
A (very) brief Haydn opera bibliography
A search of Worldcat turns up no books in English devoted solely to Haydn's operas. It's a striking oversight that someone should remedy as soon as possible. What I've listed below are the sources I consulted in putting together this post.
All subsequent research on Haydn owes a debt to the pathbreaking Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon, who wrote a definitive five-volume critical biography of the composer (H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works. Indian University Press, 1976-1980). Landon later collaborated with David Wyn Jones on a one-volume compression of that work that alternated biographical material taken from Landon's books on Haydn with chapters on his music written by Jones:
H. C. Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones, Haydn: Life and Works. Indiana University Press, 1988.Inspired by Robbins Landon, Nick Rossi wrote an essay on Haydn's operas for the very first issue of the scholarly journal Opera Quarterly:
Nick Rossi, "Joseph Haydn and Opera." Opera Quarterly, v. 1, issue 1, 1983. pp. 54-78.Cambridge University Press has published a series of Companions on major composers. The volume on Haydn includes thematic essays on Haydn's sensibility, aesthetics and environment, as well as in-depth discussions of the different musical genres he essayed:
Caryl Clark, "Haydn in the theater: the operas." In Clark, Caryl (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Haydn. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Update 27 September 2012: For Cecilia Bartoli fans, her new recording of arias by Agostino Steffani, Mission, featuring duets with fellow E&I favorite Philippe Jaroussky, is currently available for listening—track by track or in its entirety—as one of the albums featured on NPR's First Listen.
Jaroussky was the star of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival's production of Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe; you can read my post about it here.
* I've since discovered (in the Rossi article) that all of Haydn's marionette operas were in German.