Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809) Il ritorno di Tobia - oratorio in 2 parts (Hb XXI,1)
Invernizzi, Sophie Karthäuser (soprano); Ann
Hallenberg (contralto); Anders J. Dahlin (tenor); Nikolay
VokalEnsemble Köln/Max Ciolek
Capella Augustana/Andreas Spering
rec. September 2006, Studio, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany.
DDD NAXOS 8.570300-02 [3
CDs: 55:28 + 58:16 + 55:20]
The oratorio was one of
the most prominent genres of vocal music in the 17th and
18th centuries. In particular Italian composers produced
a large number of them, and these were frequently performed
at the court in Vienna, where they were especially appreciated.
This preference lasted until the last quarter of the 18th
century. It can be hardly surprising that Haydn's oratorio
Il ritorno di Tobia was very well received when it was performed
in Vienna in 1775. But at that time the public taste started
to change. Only six years later an attempt to perform this
oratorio again failed, as it was considered much too long.
Haydn was asked to rework it, but his request to be paid
for his efforts was rejected. The performance was cancelled
with the argument that no singer was available to sing the
role of Anna.
Haydn had written Il ritorno di Tobia at the request of the Vienna
'Tonkünstler Societät', to be performed at two benefit concerts
for the financial support of widows and orphans of musicians.
The story of Tobias was well-known and used by several composers.
It is based on the apocryphal book of Tobias, but Haydn's
librettist, Giovanni Gastone Boccherini - brother of the
composer Luigi - concentrated on the end of the book, which
tells about Tobias coming home from his adventures and curing
his father of his blindness. In the first part we meet Tobias's
parents, Tobit and Anna, who are eagerly awaiting the return
of their son. Anna believes he is dead, and she bitterly
opposes her husband's trust in God. But then she is proven
wrong when Tobias returns. Not only that, he turns out to
be married and presents his wife Sarah to his parents. He
is also accompanied by a man, called Asaria, who in fact
is the archangel Raphael in disguise. It is he who tells
Tobit and Anna that Tobias has the power to cure Tobit's
blindness. This is what the second part is about. Tobias
uses the venom of a monster he has defeated to cure his father's
eyes, but Tobit hardly can bear the light and says he prefers
things as they were. At the advice of Asaria Sarah then ties
a black cloth round Tobit's eyes, which is then loosened
little by little. This way his eyes can get accustomed to
the light. When Tobit, Anna, Tobias and Sarah want to give
Asaria a large sum of money as he has in fact caused Tobit
to see again and Tobias to return home safely, he reveals
that he isn't human but the archangel Raphael, and then disappears
in a cloud. Those who stay back bring praise to God, and
are joined by the people.
There is little difference between this oratorio and the operas of
Haydn's time. It starts with a Sinfonia in two sections,
slow - fast. Then follows a sequence of - mostly accompanied
- recitatives and arias, and the first part ends with a chorus.
The second part again begins with a short instrumental introduction,
which leads to another accompanied recitative of Anna, Sarah
and Raphael, which is very much like an opera scene, in which
the vocal sections are interspersed by instrumental sections.
The oratorio closes with another chorus. The operatic character
of Haydn's oratorio is also reflected by the stage directions
in the score, like "leaves", "is about to
leave" or "kneels down and kisses Tobit's hand".
When Raphael disappears the score contains the remark: "A
cloud descends from heaven, it covers him, and he ascends
in it". The stage directions explained to the audience
what they didn't see - the performances in 1775 were not
staged - but what is necessary to understand the development
of the story.
The music Haydn has written is very dramatic. The most theatrical
character is Anna, who is torn between feelings of despair
and of hope. Right at the start we see the conflict between
Anna and Tobit, as Anna accuses her husband of dreaming and
falsely hoping that God will bring Tobias home. She herself
doesn't share his trust and believes her son is dead. Her
mood is brilliantly depicted in her aria 'Sudò il guerriero',
which is preceded by an accompanied recitative in which the
different moods of Anna and Tobit are strongly illustrated
by the orchestra. Anna's despair and anger are in sharp contrast
with the unshakeable hope and faith of Tobit, which is expressed
in his aria 'Ah, tu m'ascolta', in which his words of faith
in God - "I love you, I believe in you, I hope on you" -
are supported by powerful chords from the orchestra. The
casting of the two characters is spot on. Ann Hallenberg
gives a very strong and impressive portrayal of Anna, and
expresses her diverse moods brilliantly. I think this could
have been done with a little less vibrato, though. Nikolay
Borchev gives a good account of the role of Tobit. He doesn't
sound very authoritative and powerful, but that is exactly
in line with the quiet and unflappable character of Tobit.
Most arias are virtuosic and rather long, again just like in the opera.
Anna has some of the most demanding arias, but there are
also virtuosic arias for Raphael (Come se ai voi parlasse),
excellently sung by Roberta Invernizzi, and Sarah. In the
latter's aria 'Non parmi esser fra gl'uomini' the orchestra
plays a particularly important role: almost all wind instruments
are used here, whereas the strings are reduced to playing
pizzicato. Sophie Karthäuser sings this aria very well: her
excellent breath control allows her to produce an astonishing
slow messa di voce. In her role as a whole, though, I sometimes
find her a little uninvolved, something I have noticed in
earlier recordings as well.
I have the same problem with Anders Dahlin, who is rather lacklustre
and bland in his recitatives. He has a beautiful and pleasant
voice, in particular in the high register. But the lower
register is underdeveloped, and that makes his aria 'Quel
felice nocchier' a little unsatisfying. Much better is his
first aria, 'Quanda mi dona un cenno', in which he expresses
his love for Sarah. This aria is breathtakingly beautiful,
and so is Anders Dahlin's performance. In general I have
the feeling, though, that he makes the character of Tobias
a little softer than one would expect someone to be who has
defeated a monster.
The orchestra has a very important role of its own in this oratorio.
Far from merely accompanying the singers it is used to express
the moods of the characters and the events as they unfold.
As a result there are strong contrasts in the orchestral
part, in particular in the accompanied recitatives. Haydn
has also effectively used the orchestra to characterise the
arias. This explains the colourful scoring, with pairs of
flutes, oboes, cors anglais, bassoons, trumpets and horns,
plus strings, timpani and basso continuo. The Capella Augustana
- whose members are unfortunately not mentioned in the booklet
- give top-class performances here, and the wind players
are especially impressive.
Apart from the choruses which close both parts of the oratorio, there
are also two choruses in the middle of each part. These are
the result of Haydn's reworking for the performance of 1781,
which never took place. Although Christoph Spering has chosen
to follow the first version of 1775, he considered these
choruses too good not to be used. I can understand that,
but I had preferred them to be added separately at the end
of a disc, allowing the listeners to include them if desired.
Coincidentally the additional chorus in part 1 is at the
end of the first disc, but the chorus in part 2 is not. Even
so, both choruses are splendid pieces, and so are the original
choruses of the first performance. The VokalEnsemble Köln
gives outstanding performances: powerful, but also transparent
and well-articulated, as the fugal sections of the closing
This oratorio is not really forgotten, and has been recorded before.
But it is far less-known than Haydn's two later oratorios,
'Die Schöpfung' and 'Die Jahreszeiten, which is totally unjustified.
'Il ritorno di Tobia' is an engaging and enthralling piece
of music, which interestingly shows some trademarks we know
from the later oratorios. And this oratorio also suggests
that Haydn was a very good opera composer, which his - still
seldom recorded - operas confirm.
As far as the booklet is concerned, there are informative programme
notes, and the lyrics are also printed. That isn't always
the case with Naxos, as often one has to go to the Naxos
website in order to download the lyrics. Unfortunately there
is no English translation, and the Naxos website only has
a German translation. I don't understand why no English translation
is made available. I couldn't find any on the internet either.
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