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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Operas 1

Armida (1784)
Armida – Jessye Norman (soprano)
Rinaldo - – Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor)
Zelmira – Norma Burrowes (soprano)
Idreno – Samuel Ramey (bass baritone)
Ubaldo – Robin Leggate (tenor)
Clotarco – Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
La fedeltà premiata (1781)
Celia - Lucia Valentini-Terrani (mezzo-soprano)
Fileno – Tonny Landy (tenor)
Amaranta - Frederica von Stade (soprano)
Perrucchetto – Alan Titus (baritone)
Nerina – Ileana Cotrubas (soprano)
Lindoro – Luigi Alva (tenor)
Melibeo – Maurizio Mazzieri (baritone)
Diana – Kari Lövaas (soprano)
Orlando paladino (1782)
Angelica – Arleen Auger (soprano)
Eurilla – Elly Ameling (soprano)
Alcina – Gwendolyn Killebrew (mezzo-soprano)
Orlando – George Shirley (tenor)
Medoro - Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor)
Rodomonte - Benjamin Luxon (baritone)
Pasquale - Domenico Trimarchi (bass baritone)
Caronte - Maurizio Mazzieri (baritone)
Licone – Gabor Carelli (tenor)
La vera costanza (1779)
Rosina – Jessye Norman (soprano)
Lisetta – Helen Donath (soprano)
Il conte Errico - Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor)
Villotto Villano – Wladimiro Ganzarolli (bass)
Masino - Domenico Trimarchi (bass baritone)
La baronessa Irene - Kari Lövaas (soprano)
Il marchese Ernesto - Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
Choeurs de la Radio Suisse Romande
Orchestre de Chambere de Lausanne
Antal Dorati (harpsichord and conductor)
Recorded 1976-78
PHILIPS 473 476-2 [10 CDs 9 hours 55 minutes; 68.54 + 70.29 + 53.57 + 53.10 + 55.22 + 76.27 +63.05 + 27.43 + 62.57 + 63.21]

 

I well remember the imposing Haydn box sets that regularly confronted collectors in record shops in the old days. Amidst the shelves of the Dorati Symphony cycle, the Piano Sonatas and the Quartets were the Operas and for most of us these, at least, remained pretty much terra incognita. Partly this was a case of bulk – where to start? - and partly hearsay regarding the quality of the operas and their perceived inferiority to Mozart’s, that old false equation. So it has proved to be an auspicious event that Phillips has reissued the operas in two CD boxes (of 10 each) at a tempting price. Gone alas are the extensive notes and libretti. Instead we have a slimline booklet in English, French and German, with plot synopses and a brief introduction to the works.

The first volume opens with one of the most completely convincing of all the operas, Armida. As with the other operas one must draw attention at the outset to the consistently impressive playing of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne with its alert string section and characterful winds. In drawing attention to the stellar vocal soloists it’s easy to give the band less than its due, which would be a disservice to them. Still, with Jessye Norman, Norma Burrowes, Samuel Ramey and Anthony Rolfe Johnson on board it’s not surprising that emphasis swings dramatically to them. And also to one of the stalwarts of these sets, tenor Claes H Ahnsjö who proves himself to be a real adornment to this series of works - because his is a name that has not received its due over the years. Armida was the most performed of the Esterháza operas and took a stock operatic theme which, given its essentially static nature, nevertheless throws up some quite outstanding music. Ahnsjö copes splendidly with the big range demanded of him – his Vado a pugnar contento in Act I is full of confident swagger and in the duet with Norma Burrowes’ Zelmira he shows a splendid trill, fine compass and lyric ease. When it comes to the more anguished and dramatic moments of Act II he proves to be sophisticated and emotionally convincing in the despair of Cara, è vero, io son tirano. As she shows here and elsewhere (try Se tu seguir mi vuoi) Burrowes is in excellent voice, sweetly generous and with no forcing of tone. Anthony Rolfe Johnson shows a honeyed tenor – easeful and liquid – in Ah si plachi il fiero nume, his Act I stand-out aria. Ramey impresses as Idreno and so does Robin Leggate – real style from him. Which leaves Armida herself, Jessye Norman, in glorious voice throughout and if not fired with quite the authentic chill of a sorcerer’s art, nevertheless masterful on her own terms. There are far fewer secco recitatives here than in other of the operas, where Dorati’s handling of them could be uneven, but there is a fine example of a classical piece of theatre in the wind machine used for the mountain top scene in the accompanied recitative in Act I Valorosi compagni. On balance Armida emerges as one of the most compact, wide-ranging and lyrically and psychologically impressive of all Haydn’s operas – it also proves a tough act to follow in Volume I.

La fedeltà premiata is lightly cut though there doesn’t seem to be a reference to it in the booklet notes. There are cuts in recitative and in some of the arias – excisions include Act II’s Lindoro aria, which is a pity as Luigi Alva was in fine form throughout this particular recording. As in many of these works Haydn appropriated an existing libretto (from Cimarosa) and piled on the comic elements that are so attractive a feature of them. Here the greatest emotive weight lies in the ensemble finales that conclude Acts I and II and not in any particular aria or series of arias. It’s a longer way than Armida with a greater preponderance of secco recitative and the casting is less stellar across the roles – but certainly fine for all that as a look at the head note will reveal. The opening hunting horn overture was so good – it’s wonderfully played here – that Haydn borrowed it from himself as the finale of Symphony No 73. There are many highlights and here are some of them; von Stade’s exquisitely rapt singing of the accompanied recitative Prendi, prenda o Diana, Alva’s bustling and manly First Act aria Gia mi sembra di sentire, the jealousy aria so balefully characterised by the underrated Maurizio Mazzieri, and Ileana Cotrubas’ delightfully crisp and technically adroit way with È amore di natura. Alan Titus has the noble timbre for Perrucchetto and Tonny Lanny has a fine, rather open tone in the role of Fileno. Lucia Valentini-Terrani, the mezzo heroine, is flexible and full of character – though maybe just a touch plummy here and there. Where the First Act ensemble finale proved touching, the Second Act grows in confidence and brio and is splendidly balanced by the engineers and brings the work to a spirited conclusion.

Orlando Paladino is a bit of a pastiche of classical operatic elements, taking the legend of Roland and having a high old time with it. There are moments throughout of the richest, ripest and most genuinely hilarious humour, as good as any of its type in opera. Though he called it a drama eroicomico, a serio-comic drama, the comic consistently undercuts and points up the heroic in a fruitful and joyful way. Again the cast is a fine one, the women especially, and the orchestral playing is on a high level throughout. It’s impossible to resist the creamy Elly Ameling in Ah se dire io vi potessi nor Benjamin Luxon’s lantern jawed appearance as Rodomonte in Act I – so full of character. Arleen Auger’s Angelica has control, style, simplicity and superbly held notes (breath control alpha plus) as well as tonal beauty (see her Cavatina in Act I). Less well known than these is mezzo Gwendolyn Killebrew but she proves to have steel and fire aplenty in her arias – forceful and impressive. Claes H Ahnsjö proves to have, once more, a special place as a Haydn tenor. Maybe his lower positions aren’t always ideally supported but he possesses a very pleasing timbre, a stunning range – he’s truly fearless – and one can hear the other side of the coin in his pleading and yearning aria Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso in Act I. There’s a fine buffo, quasi Leporello-ish, role for Domenico Trimarchi’s Pasquale. Its apex is the aria when, struck half dumb by love he stutters monosyllabically. Not only is there whistling here as well (irresistible) but a sort of proto-Rossinian fizz. The whole of the First Act is a series of superbly characterful arias and duets, topped by George Shirley’s Orlando – a real don’t mess with me menace exuding from every pore. If the rest of the opera isn’t quite on this level it still shows Haydn working at consistently elevated status as an operatic lion (the stuttering duet is at the heart of Act II) and there are certainly plenty of moments of affecting drama such as Act III’s beautiful Dell’estreme sue voci dolenti which Auger sings with captivating delicacy.

La vera costanza is the final opera in this first box. First produced in 1779 it concerns a virtuous heroine surrounded by some rather stock buffo characters. The cast is consistently strong once more, with Jessye Norman and Helen Donath heading a standout female side. Some of the secco recitatives are rather heavily done by Dorati, who plays harpsichord and this can impede the natural rhythmic impetus of a work of this kind. Still, the arias themselves are well taken and there are plenty of opportunities for virtuosity and for expressive control. One such is for Kari Lövaas’s dramatic soprano aria in Act I Non s’innalza where she shows her excellent range and instinct for theatrical combustibility. Nor should we forget the band – they are properly alert and lithe behind Trimarchi’s So che una bestia sei. Donath is impressive throughout and the top aria for Norman is her well articulated and confident Dove fuggo in the Second Act.

The first box has been attractively, if relatively sparsely, designed. Remastering has not notably improved an already excellently recorded slew of discs – the instrumental/vocal perspective had been finely and successfully judged in the studio. At just over two CD boxes in width this ten CD box takes up minimal space and provides maximal enjoyment.

Jonathan Woolf

Volume 2



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