The Royal Opera House has treated us to a double first by staging Josef Haydn's 'L'Anima del Filosofo' (The Spirit of Philosophy) as a means of enticing Cecilia Bartoli to make her debut at Covent Garden.
Over the years she has resisted the lure of more popular operas and herself suggested that this interesting, but only occasionally inspiring, piece should be staged. Re-telling the Orpheus legend, it differs from Gluck's much more famous and tuneful Orpheus and Eurydice in that it dispenses with the happy ending and has a tenor singing Orfeo to Euridice's mezzo soprano.
She is killed by a snakebite at the end of the first act, thus making the heroine redundant for the rest of the evening! Cecilia, no doubt to justify her enormous fee, reappears as Genio, a Sybil, who reveals herself to be the spirit of Love. She promises to lead Orfeo to the underworld to search for Eurydice.
This allows Bartoli to pull out all the stops and after some beautiful legato singing in the first act she lets rip in the second, when we witness the amazing flexibility and range of her voice. However, these vocal pyrotechnics - although impressive - can sound ugly at the top of the range, and do nothing to further the dramatic conviction of the opera. The voice sounds quite small in the wide open spaces of Covent Garden and one imagines how much more impressive the whole production would be in a smaller house such as Glyndebourne. However, one can not but be charmed by Bartoli's warm personality, which pervades the stage when she is singing and blossoms when receiving the enormous ovation which greeted her on taking her curtain calls.
Orfeo is sung by Roberto Saccà, an Italian born in Germany who has sung for the Zurich opera since 1993. This is also his debut at Covent Garden and in what is the largest part in the opera, he gives a creditable but hardly spectacular performance. He is convincing as the love-lorn Orfeo, but his voice lacks lustre and does not ring out above the severely diminished Royal Opera Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. They play beautifully and in company with the as-ever excellent Royal Opera Chorus, keep the opera going at a steady pace.
There is a fine performance by the Canadian born baritone Gerald Finley playing Creonte, Euridice's father. The production by Jürgen Flimm (borrowed from Zurich) is somewhat quirky with weird and inappropriate costumes and dull lighting.
To sum up, this was not the exciting eagerly awaited evening I had keenly anticipated but I had seen Cecilia on the operatic stage - a first for me - and I had also experienced a previously unseen opera. Perhaps for the next hoped-for visit we could sample Bartoli's Rossini, Mozart or even Gluck. In the meantime, go out and buy her newly released CD of Gluck arias, which is indeed exciting.