Remarkably, Haydn’s last opera, Orfeo ed Euridice,
received its first staging as late as 1951. That Florence performance
featured a cast of imposing stature; Maria Callas, Boris Christoff,
Tygge Tyggeson, and a no less imposing conductor in the person
of Erich Kleiber. Such dream casting may cause speculation as
to the nature of the performance. What however can’t be
gainsaid is the existence of this earlier 1950 Vienna recording,
made for Haydn Society LP, and released in a three LP set on
HSLP2019, as well as on Vox OPBX193. It was, I believe, the
first complete recording of a Haydn opera.
This was a most worthy undertaking. The cast, whilst variable,
was well blended and the orchestral contributions strong and
alert. Swarowsky directs with intelligence, and manages to generate
quite a deal of theatrical heft. This is important because Orfeo
ed Euridice is a dramatic, powerful work, and grandly conceived.
If opera seria was soon to die, then its swansong here
and in Mozart’s contemporaneous La Clemenza di Tito
was an effective end to the genre.
Orfeo is Herbert Handt whose plangent tenor is a pleasure to
hear. In the harp-accompanied Rendete a questro seno
he demonstrates the salient features of his musicianship; a
lyric tenor, well deployed throughout the scale, a soft, when
necessary, caressing tone; fine divisions; a certain elegance
of expression; a slight similarity in timbral quality and effect
to Heddle Nash. But Handt doesn’t lack for vigour, either,
and sings throughout with strength, purpose, and intelligence.
His Euridice is Judith Hellwig. She has a fine tone and when
singing long sustained notes evinces no sign of a wobble. Her
Filomena abbandonata in the First Act does however reveal
her real weakness in runs, which are, to be blunt, pretty awful.
The two lovers sing well together in their end of Act I duet
Come il foco allo splendour, but it’s noticeable
that her intonation veers badly without his support. She’s
much better in Act II where her lyric gifts are well met in
Dovè l’amato bene? and Del mio core;
here her delicious portamenti and legato win the day.
The Genio is pure-toned Hedda Heusser, more technically secure
than Hellwig, who essays her exceptionally difficult task with
great fervour. Perhaps the best known singers to us today are
Walter Berry and Alfred Poell. They sing with rugged assurance.
Poell is especially bluff and convincing in his Act II Mai
non fia insulto.
The chorus is alert and taut, but not always precise. Its entry
in the first act is rightly dramatic, taut and arresting. It
plays an increasingly important and demanding role as the opera
develops, and shows Haydn’s clear indebtedness to Handel’s
‘English’ choruses. Instrumentally, the harpsichord
of Kurt Rapf is quite a large-sounding beast, or maybe it was
recorded very close up. It’s certainly prominent but not
actually off-putting. Orchestrally, the martial elements of
the music are nicely dealt with - the drums and brass in Act
II Scene II in particular. This is a very interestingly orchestrated
work with ripe roles for the brass and harp in particular.
The work ends in reflective intimacy, in a long diminuendo,
and Swarowksy sustains the expressive temperature of the work
to the very end. The set comes with a series of essays from
H.C. Robbins Landon - none better in this field of course -
but there is no libretto. The only concern is the rather muddied
and occasionally distorted sound, qualities that I strongly
assume to have been endemic and thus eradicable, even by so
expert a restorer as Lani Spahr.