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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Acide, Festa teatrale - Opera fragment (1763-1773)
Bernard Richter - Acide, (tenor); Raffaela Milanesi - Galatea, (soprano); Jennifer O'Loughlin - Glauce (soprano), Iván Paley - Polifemo, Nettuno (baritone); Adrineh Simonian - Tetide (mezzo)
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien (playing on period instruments)/Manfred Huss
rec. Floriankirche, Straden, Austria, May 2008
Booklet notes, artist biographies in English, German, French;
original libretto in Italian with English translation
BIS BISSACD1812 [69.38]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording of Joseph Haydn's Acide is part of a wider initiative related to the 2009 bicentenary of his death. BIS and the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien are working together to bring to the public some of Haydn's rarest pieces. They are re-releasing works they have previously recorded and complement these with new material. The present title is one of the fruits of this collaboration. It's a welcome initiative as Haydn's operas are still amongst his least known compositions.

Acide, was Haydn's first Italian opera, composed to a libretto by Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca, literary assistant and pupil of the illustrious Pietro Metastasio. The opera tells the familiar story of 'Acide and Galatea', and is a so-called festa or azione teatrale: a festive opera. These operas were written for great occasions. The plots were usually based on stories from classical mythology, adapted to the events, which they were supposed to celebrate. The special occasion, in this instance, was the marriage of Countess Maria Theresia Erdödy to Count Anton Esterházy, the eldest son of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn's employer. Migliavacca used Metastasio's Galatea as his starting point for the libretto but added two new roles and a happy ending for the purpose of the Esterházy wedding. The celebrations went on for a few days and Haydn's opera was performed on the day after the marriage took place, on the afternoon of 11 January 1763.

Unfortunately, though a copy of the full libretto still exists in the archives of the Musikverein in Vienna, around half the music was destroyed in the big Esterházy fire of 1779. What survives is a three movement overture, four arias, an accompanied recitative for Acide and a final quartet for Galatea, Acide, Glauce and Tetide - these last being the two roles added by Migliavacca. Haydn revised the opera before the fire in 1773-4, though this version was never performed, but from it there remain a few additional pieces: an accompanied recitative and part of an aria for Galatea, and a coloratura bass aria for Neptune, in fact a reworking of the original aria for Tetide. All the surviving parts, listed above, were recorded for this CD. Manfred Huss, who also wrote the very informative booklet notes, explains that he tentatively completed the fragment of Galatea's aria, which survives from the revised version, specifically for this disc.

It is obvious from first to last that great care was put into bringing Haydn's fragmented opera to life. This is an insightful, detailed performance, lovingly played on period instruments. The Sinfonietta and Huss are Haydn experts and can certainly be counted among the best, possibly even the best, in terms of authenticity and insightful understanding of the composer's intentions and creative powers. The performance is excellent and will not disappoint Haydn's fans or scholars, however I must confess that I was not completely taken by it.

There are some wonderful moments: the overture is beautiful and extremely well played. Acide's aria La beltà is a fabulous show-stopper for a tenor. Galatea's aria - of which only part survives - Troppo felice is moving and tender and the final quartet sung by Galatea, Glauce, Tetide and Acide, Ah vedrai is a wonderful ensemble piece. It would nowadays be described as Mozartian, though Haydn was already twenty-four years old when Mozart was born.

The problem is that the recorded result just does not work as an opera. It feels more like a selection of great but little known compositions by Haydn. It lacks continuity and dramatic narrative. For example, the overture is like an early Haydn symphony, which appears to have no relation to the arias that follow or the quartet at the end. I am left with the impression of selected highlights rather than a whole dramatic piece of musical theatre. This is far from surprising when we have the full libretto but not the complete music. Sometimes, one expects a different musical sequence after the end of an aria and the beginning of another or following a recitative. One is then surprised when the next piece appears illogical or out of context. As a listener, who had never before heard this piece, I could not help but think that something important was missing, which indeed it is.

This notwithstanding, the recorded music is of great quality. It still serves to demonstrate some of Haydn's adventurous, forward-thinking characteristics. Undoubtedly the most striking of these is the final quartet. Young Swiss tenor, Bernard Richter, is outstanding as Acide. He has a clear tone, with easy high notes and does full justice to some of the extravagant and difficult passages that Haydn composed for his star tenor of the day, Carl Friberth. Italian soprano Rafaella Milanesi sings Galatea in a rather moving manner, with a particularly beautiful rendition of Galatea's fragmented aria Tropo felice. Her voice has a rich, rounded and expressive tone, with great flexibility, very pleasant to the ear and touching to the heart. Colombian baritone Iván Paley gives a solid performance as both Polifemo and Nettuno, though the aria for Neptune would definitely have benefited if sung by a real bass, with a darker voice than Paley's. The two remaining roles of Glauce and Tetide are well performed by American soprano Jennifer O'Loughlin and Iranian mezzo of Armenian origin Adrineh Simonian respectively. Ms O'Loughlin possesses a beautiful, pure, crystalline tone with an assured coloratura, displaying considerable virtuosity during Glauce's very difficult aria Perché stupisci. All the singers were very good but the performance that touched me the most was Ms Simonian's as Tetide. She possesses a wonderfully rare dark mezzo in the mid-lower range, yet is also capable of flexible, warm high notes. She sings Tetide's technically demanding aria Tergi i vezzosi with elegance and stylish ease. The final quartet is not only musically progressive but also very beautiful and demanding for the four singers. It is in reality an ensemble show-piece for tenor, two different styles of soprano and a dark mezzo. It is here most beautifully performed by Richter as Acide, Milanesi as Galatea, O'Loughlin as Glauce and Simonian as Tetide. Richter's wonderfully crystal clear tenor tone stands out and offers an effective contrast to Simonian's dark mezzo, harmoniously melting with Milanesi's rich timbre and O'Loughlin's pure, bright soprano. The result is a real treat and the definitive highlight of the CD, which would be worth buying for this quartet alone.

Finally, although this CD did not work for me as a whole opera, it is still an excellent recording of rarely heard music by Haydn. Technically, this hybrid disc, as is generally the case with SACDs, is very good and when played on the relevant equipment it does make a distinctive difference. The sound of the individual instruments and of the voices is very clear, displaying a quality that one normally only obtains when in the live proximity of the musicians. The soloists, the Haydn Sinfonietta, Manfred Huss and the record label (BIS) demonstrated great artistic integrity and dedication to authenticity in bringing this work to life. It is certainly a wonderful tribute to Joseph Haydn, in this bicentenary year of his death. It clearly proves, if proof were necessary, what a great composer he was.

Margarida Mota-Bull


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