Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Haydn: Esterházá Classical Opera @ Wigmore Hall, London

28 September 2005

It seems to be Haydn month in London. Hot on the heels of Bampton Opera’s jolly semi-staging of the rarely heard L’infedeltà delusa, the Esterházá Classical Opera Company brought a programme of items from the composer’s symphonic, operatic and sacred repertoires to the Wigmore Hall. And, with one or two reservations, the concert impressed.

Full marks for the diverse selection of music, which covered the period 1766-68 – in other words, the first three years of Haydn’s residence in the newly-built castle, Esterházá. The latter was built by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who was a member of the wealthiest and most influential family of the Hungarian nobility. To musicians Prince Nikolaus’ significance is his inspired patronage of Joseph Haydn over several decades, first as Vice-Kapellmeister, then as full Court Composer.

This concert of music written at Esterházá was aptly framed by two complete symphonies. Unfortunately, the performance of Symphony No. 59 in A, known as the ‘Fire’ Symphony, was underwhelming. Despite his admirable self-effacing style of conducting, Ian Page (who is also the company’s artistic director) simply failed to drive the music forward with sufficient verve.

I just don’t feel he understands the point of this piece. For instance, his programme note states that the opening ‘theme’ consists of 45 consecutive ‘A’s – ‘apparently unpromising material’. But what of the simultaneous descending chromatic line in a lower voice, whose dissonant clash obviously forms part of the concept of the ‘theme’? This combination is far from unpromising – it is the basis of the movement in fact. All four movements lacked dynamic contrast, and a focus on Haydn’s instrumentation was needed badly.

So it was a relief to get to the first set of operatic excerpts, two arias from the early stage work La canterina. The former Royal Opera Young Artist and recent Cardiff Song Prize winner Andrew Kennedy justified all the acclaim about him by bringing out the sparkle of Don Pelagio’s aria. This is Haydn at his best, parodying the conventions of opera seria by exaggerating the orchestral interjections and overdoing the vocal flourishes, which Kennedy carried off with aplomb.

Pelagio is a music teacher who is one of Gasparina’s two suitors, and when Pelagio throws her out of his house, Gasparina sings another over-the-top aria of affected remorse. Sadly, the soprano Lucy Crowe did not warm up in time for the high tessitura of the aria, though there were moments of beauty.

However, she excelled in Volpino’s pastiche ‘Turkish’ aria from another opera of the period, Lo speziale (The Apothecary), and the same character’s vengeance aria showed a creaminess which is always welcome in this repertoire.

Kennedy contributed an hysterically funny rendition of the chemist Mengone’s ‘constipation’ aria (from the same opera). It ends with the promise that eating cloves will ensure that the bowels will be freed, the vocal part set to a succession of runs (of all kinds, I am told), which were dispatched with apparent ease (so to speak) by this brilliant young tenor.

For me, Kennedy’s strongest items were the ‘Et incarnates est’ from the Missa Cellensis in honorem BVM and the ‘Vidit suum’ from the Stabat Mater. The contrasting joy and melancholy of texts describing Christ’s birth and death were given poignancy, not least thanks to an apparent reverence for Haydn’s careful setting of the texts. This is the hallmark of a great Lied singer, and I hope Kennedy will continue down the path of song recitals in small venues rather than attempting too much large-scale opera.

Thankfully, the performance of Symphony No. 49, ‘La Passione’, which closed the concert, was almost ideally played. The horns had been over-taxed in earlier pieces but here rose to the challenges of the high part-writing, and the strings had an exquisite tone.

Nevertheless, it was the magnificent sound of the period-instrument ensemble as a whole that impressed the most, matching an intelligence that was apparent in the best moments of the concert. I certainly hope the company fulfils its ambition to perform a complete cycle of Mozart’s operas, and can only look forward to their interesting Wigmore Hall concert of early Mozart works in January.

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Haydn: Esterházá Classical Opera @ Wigmore Hall, London