Is Haydn “deeply unsexy” as he’s been described or is he a “radical, genius, entertainer” as the bicentenary celebrations at the South Bank would have us believe?
To challenge our assumptions, the festivities began with a genuine rarity, The Return of Tobias.
Tobias was such a smash hit in 1775 that it raised the equivalent of 100,000 by today’s standards. All Vienna turned out to hear Nancy Storace and Stefano Mandini, the top stars of the day, now remembered for premiering Mozart, singing before 180 musicians and choir. It must have been spectacular!
There is plenty of drama in Tobias, but the action takes place only in memory, with Tobias returning home and telling his parents about his adventures, which include killing a sea monster and the demon who strangled all seven other bridegrooms whom his new wife, Sara, had previously married.
Stories told in reverse aren’t necessarily a problem (Wagner did this often) but because there’s no narrative action as such, we are afforded the opportunity to indulge in glorious arias and recitatives. Eighteenth century audiences weren’t too bothered by characterisation or psychological insight as long as the tunes were good.
And in Tobias, there are glorious moments indeed. Each singer has a showpiece aria to display his or her vocal prowess to stunning effect, wowing the listener into abject wonder. Anna, Tobias’s mother, has one of the loveliest moments, “Sud il guerriero”. She’s just nagging her blind, old husband but who cares when it’s done with this much panache?
Later, Tobias brings the magic potion he got from the slain serpent. “Delay could prove fatal”, he urges, launching into a ten minute aria, followed by another elaborate aria by Anna and extended choral effusions. Tobit, of course, refuses the potion at first, giving rise to an extremely very long recitative where the various singers can indulge in deliciously beautiful interchanges, though they’re describing Tobit’s agonised suffering as the poison takes hold.
Naturally the angel Raffaelle, is given the most exquisite arias of all. “Come si a voi parlasse un messagier del cielo”, (as if a messenger from heaven had spoken). Rachel Nicholls as Raffaelle really was an angelic presence, her wonderfully projected singing soaring firmly, filling the auditorium with light. It was all the more impressive since she’d stepped in at short notice; she’s a singer to watch.
All of the singing was excellent. A piece like this, designed to showcase vocal technique, stands or falls in performance. Without lively singing, these long stretches of repeated words minus action would drag. Fortunately, Ann Hallenberg’s feisty Anna was vivid, and Christopher Maltman’s Tobit darkly resonant, even menacing. Andrew Kennedy as Tobias and Lucy Crowe as Sara completed the ensemble well. The Joyful Company of Singers provided a lively chorus of Hebrews.
When The Return of Tobias was revived in 1808, it flopped badly and has remained in obscurity ever since. Part of the reason was Mozart. Long, philosophising Bible oratorios just couldn’t compete. Mendelssohn revived the genre for a while, but the way people heard dramatic music had changed. After 200 years though, perhaps we can appreciate things from a different perspective?