By and large, Haydn's operas have, not without justification, fallen into desuetude apart from the occasional revival and recording; it would seem that perhaps the restrictions of scale imposed upon him by Eszterhaza and a certain retrograde conventionality of idiom, especially in comparison with the operas of his famous younger contemporary, meant that his stage works lacked the originality and appeal of his oratorios.
Nonetheless, we periodically hear laments from aficionados that we should hear more of Haydn's operas; certainly I was very pleasantly surprised by my recent acquaintance with his "Armida" (see my review) and this opera was thought to be good enough to be a vehicle for Maria Callas and Boris Christoff at the Santa Maria Maggiore theatre in Florence in 1951. Furthermore, while I have never been a fan of Christopher Hogwood's forays into Mozart's operas, I have certainly much enjoyed the collaboration between him and Bartoli in Handel's operas, such as in their "Rinaldo", and as "Orfeo ed Euridice", despite moments of surprising invention, is often rather more baroque than classical in its manner, his gifts are displayed to advantage here.
Haydn was freed from the constraints of composing for a small, provincial opera house and found he would have at his disposal resources on a London scale, consisting of a big orchestra and an equally sizeable chorus, plus soloists of the first rank, so he felt liberated and went to town, making "Orfeo" by far the largest scale opera he ever wrote. This one would surely suit a larger, modern stage, especially when its three principal roles are sung by voices of note, as in this recording from twenty years ago. Bartoli is astonishingly fleet, flexible and varied, and she eschews the mannerisms which have crept into her singing over the years. Uwe Heilmann's slightly tight tenor sounds at its best here and is more suited to this music than to Mozart; he is expressive and steady, his fast vibrato matching Bartoli's vibrancy perfectly - and, incidentally, his Italian sounds entirely idiomatic. A young and splendidly named Ildebrando D'Arcangelo brings his sonorous bass-baritone to bear upon some impressively hieratic - Masonic? - music for the king, Creonte.
The music itself is not always arresting but there is much which is both delightful and really dramatic; moments such as Euridice's death from the snake-bite and Orfeo's expressions of grief are very effective and affecting. Bartoli doubles up as both Euridice and the Sybil ("Genio"), convincingly arguing in a little essay that supplements H.C Robbins Landon's excellent and informative notes that the Sybil is a kind of alter ego of Orfeo's soul, accompanying him on his journey as Virgil accompanies Dante and disappearing with Euridice when he fails the test of will. She has one supremely challenging coloratura aria whose difficulties she surmounts triumphantly. Roberto Scaltriti's contribution to the chorus sounds superficially well enough but closer listening also explains why his career was curtailed, as there is noticeable constriction in his tonal production arising from his persistent habit of singing out of the side of his mouth. Otherwise, the supporting cast is excellent and the playing of the Academy of Ancient Music, by this date, flub-free and tangily incisive.
My thanks to a friend who heard this being broadcast and, loving the music, alerted me to its existence.
One of Haydn's best lyrical works. Written on commission by Solomon (same patron of the London symphonies) for performance in London. Strong Handel influence in the choruses and early Mozart operas in the arias ( La finta Gardiniera comes to mind many times while listening to this performance). In fact Haydn, just before leaving on the commission for this work, was spending a lot of time with Mozart, who was writing The Magic Flute; and you can hear strains of the music of the Magic flute also (when Orfeo calms the savages for example). Ceclia Bartoli sings Euridice, with well articulated and modulated emotional coloratura extremes. Uwe Heilman sings Orfeo with great agility and virility. All the minor roles are well sung too. Hogwood directs an elegant orchestra and chorus of Ancient Music creating an eloquent interpretation. Recommended to understand Haydn's operatic talents better, and an highly enjoyable tragic love story.