Haydn's operas became dear to me when I discovered the wonderful, now about 20 years old Philips set of the Eszterhaza cycle recorded by Dorati. By some caprice of fate these marvelous performances never really caught the attention of opera lovers and became known only to Haydn's most ardent devotees. I joined this circle only about a year ago and immediately immersed myself in these utterly delightful works. I never seemed to have enough of them, each listening was bringing new treasures and often the impression of `deja entendu'. Yes, these works were so `Mozartian' (though composed long before Mozart started writing his masterpieces) that I couldn't understand how such great musical achievements could have been deemed as not quite successful. Haydn's operas are marvelously orchestrated, studded with surprising little details which Haydn seemed to produce effortlessly; one has the impression that the composer is not interested in following the beaten musical path, that he teases both the musicians and the listener. Apart from the delightful orchestration, two other features deserve a special mention: magnificent accompanied recitativi, many of them as fine as Donna Elvira's "In quali eccessi" for example and fantastic, elaborate ensembles. Haydn's operas contain a great number of beautiful arias which certainly deserve to be more popular than they are now (for samples I can refer the readers to Anne Sofie von Otter's recital of Gluck's, Haydn's and Mozart's arias on DG Archiv, tracks #7 and 8 and above all #13 for an example of a "Mozartian" aria with a lovely horn obligato).
Dorati's cycle is a marvel, really one of the treasures of recorded opera. Conducting, singing and the overall atmosphere are of the highest order. These performances are indeed sheer delight: there is a feeling of genuine joy of music making, something that I find more and more absent in many recordings of our days. It's a pity that the set is no longer in the catalogue (it is, however, still available in Europe) - how long it will take for Philips to reissue these splendid performances at mid-price remains an open question, but it will happen one day, I am sure. In the meantime we have three serious attempts at resuscitating Haydn's operatic output. Just a few years ago Christopher Hogwood (with Cecilia Bartoli) recorded Haydn's last opera "Orfeo ed Euridice", then came "L'isola disabitata" under David Golub and now we have Harnoncourt's "Armida" which may finally, I hope, bring about a real revival of Haydn's operas.
"Armida" is hailed as the best of Haydn's operatic works and even if I don't totally share this view, I am closer to understanding its popularity now, after having heard Harnoncourt's recording than when I heard it first on the Dorati set. Today, after hours and hours spent with recordings of this great Hungarian conductor, I can say that "Armida" was probably the weakest link in his Eszterhaza cycle. I will go even further and put the blame on Jessye Norman's bland and uncharacteristic Armida. Norman's isn't a kind of voice I find suitable for this repertoire; even if she tries to give her Armida some personal touches, not a single moment in her singing brings us closer to the fact that we are dealing with a terrifying sorceress; she also never quite conveys her heroine's feelings, love and passion for Rinaldo and her great torment. That's a pity, because almost everything else in this recording (save some of the recitativi secci which seem to drag; incidentally - most of the recitativi secci on the Harnoncourt set are abridged, some even substantially. The booklet doesn't explain if these are Haydn's own changes or simply adaptations made by Harnoncourt for the purpose of this concert performance) works very well. Bartoli's Armida is quite a different story, a story that really doesn't need to be talked about but simply listened to - Cecilia is in her element and gives her heroine a real human dimension. Don't bother to follow the printed libretto or brush up your Italian - you don't need to understand a single word to be able to make some sense of what is going on. That's what a great performance is about and this one will leave you under a spell for long, long time.
Harnoncourt's "Armida" is a real theater of passion. How far from (or close to) Haydn's intentions or Haydnesque spirit this performance is I don't know and I don't care. All the delights of the score are beautifully rendered by Concentus Musicus, although those who know the Dorati set may be initially shocked by some of Harnoncourt's tempi. They don't bother me, I even find them convincing as they are flexible, not monotonously on the hectic side which has become a bad habit nowadays. Here and there a gentler touch wouldn't hurt, but generally it`s a great performance and great musical theater. Patricia Petibon is an excellent Zelmira, even if she doesn't completely outshine Norma Burrowes on Philips. Christoph Pregardien (Rinaldo) has occasionally some vocal problems, but they are really marginal (it is worth remembering that it's a LIVE recording, though all audience noises and the final applause have been suppressed) - his voice is heroic enough, yet still gives the desirable impression of vulnerability. The remaining three supporting characters, Idreno, Clotarco and Ubaldo are well taken by Oliver Widmer, Marcus Schaefer and Scot Weir respectively, the latter convincingly adding some humor to his hero's portrait.
I could go on and on, far beyond these 1000 words given to me here. This release of "Armida" is really a great event for all opera lovers and we can only wish that Harnoncourt will record more of Haydn's unjustly neglected masterpieces in the nearest future. I only hope that the packaging will be a little more user- and CD-friendly!