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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Creation, Oratorio in 3 parts Hob.XX1:2 (1796-8) [103.13]
Gabriel/Eve, Mari Eriksmoen (soprano); Raphael/Adam, Daniel Schmutzhard (baritone); Uriel, Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor)
Accentus, Insula Orchestra/ Laurence Equilbey
Stage Production: La Fura dels Baus/Carlus Padrissa
rec. live Auditorium, La Seine Musicale, Īle Seguin, France, 12 May 2017
Bonus: A behind-the-scenes documentary of The Creation
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region free: Subtitles English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in surround
NAXOS NBD0080V Blu-ray [138 mins]

Haydn's oratorio is sung here in its German version, usefully avoiding the difficulties of the English version which got so thoroughly mangled by the composer's librettists. The words are drawn from Genesis and the Psalms and from Milton's Paradise Lost and are rumoured to have been prepared for Handel. This was appropriate as Haydn's decision to compose such a work was inspired by hearing some of the gargantuan performances of Handel that were still popular in London in the late 18th century. The oratorio is an undiluted masterpiece containing some of the most impressive and forward-looking music Haydn ever composed. The Representation of Chaos is an exercise in tone colours and advanced harmony almost suited to the late 19th century. The big dramatic moments like "Let there be light" are like nothing else from the period. During Haydn's lifetime there were performances using a large chorus and orchestra. Paul McCreesh has recorded such a version for Archiv and that is well worth hearing as a contrast to the present, smaller scale, production. The notes with those CDs are also extremely useful in providing background.

For the present Blu-ray disc we need to start with a description, because what we have is a quite unique performance. Musically it is a period performance using a moderate sized chorus of around 30 and an orchestra of about 40 using appropriate instruments. Were one to play this disc without the picture one would be almost unaware that it is anything other than a well sung and well played performance of Haydn's great masterpiece. Turning on said picture will undoubtedly distract you from this as you look in wonder at the imaginative and sometimes challenging stage picture. Of the performers only the orchestra can devote their full attention to playing the score. The soloists and the chorus are further occupied by Carlus Padrissa's remarkable staging and, in the case of the soloists, complex extravagant costumes.

Padrissa is a film and stage director working with his Catalan company La Fura dels Baus. He has extensive experience in operatic stagings (notably the Valencia Ring Cycle under Zubin Mehta) and seems, from the interesting bonus documentary, to have relished the challenge of an oratorio that the composer can never have expected to be presented as staged drama. The chorus are wandering refugees, besmirched and frightened or amazed by turns. The three soloists move through the stage space, fly and even submerge themselves whilst in full, indeed spectacular, costume. The memory of Adam and Eve starting their long duet completely underwater - no singing at this point! - and ending up high above the stage (dripping copiously), all without missing a note, will stay with me. I suspect Mari Eriksmoen and Daniel Schmutzhard will also remember this, hopefully with pride at their own achievement. All this movement is accompanied by a handful of stage props. Unlike the above Ring, there are no acrobats, just these: a tablet computer for each member of the chorus, a couple of dozen large balloons, a stage crane for the flying, a tank of water, gauzes and lots of lights.. These allow us to see solar systems, starbursts, a large beetle, myriad patterns, philosophical epigrams, the list is very long and Padrissa rarely repeats himself. After recoiling at first sight of all this, I stuck with it and ended up quite moved by the cumulative experience of Haydn's great finale chorus "Sing the Lord, ye voices all".

As to the musical performances, all three acquit themselves very well with Mari Eriksmoen producing the clearest and sweetest of sounds as befits an archangel presiding over the creation of the world, or as humanity's first woman. Equally fine in clarity is Martin Mitterrutzner whose archangel Uriel is commanding quite literally from on high. I worried a tiny bit about the pitch security of Daniel Schmutzhard but given the physical challenges he had to face as both archangel Raphael and Adam, from on high to that tank of water, it is completely forgivable. Insula are a fine orchestra and perform with power, lyricism and vitality for their Chief Conductor Laurence Equilbey. So they should for she has long experience of this repertoire and seems from her CV to be in justifiably great demand.

The bonus documentary, apart from being informative, also gave an impressive picture of artistic cooperation in action. No prima donnas here, just musicians determined that this remarkable experiment succeeds. It is certainly not what one might expect for any oratorio but I feel this highly imaginative performance should share your shelves with other, more conventional, offerings. The notes explain more about the stage director's concept and perhaps purchasers would do well to read these and view the documentary before viewing the performance.

Dave Billinge



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