Monday 17 September 2018

Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy

Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn Armida; Ana Maria Labin, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, dir: Alessio Pizzech, Haydn Philharmonie, cond: Enrico Onofrio; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy, Eistenstadt
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A rare opportunity to hear Haydn's Armida in a semi-staging in the hall where he regularly worked in Eisenstadt

Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, Enrico Onofrio, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Festivals should generally aim to do something different, something that does not come the way of the ordinary concert or opera-goer. So it is a perfect fit that Herbst Gold, the festival in Eisenstadt, has begun a planned series of concert stagings of opera by Joseph Haydn (possibly Eisenstadt's most famous resident). We still do not see enough of these operas, and Haydn regarded them highly. And until performers, directors and audiences get used to his particular style, it will be difficult to understand them.

As this year's Herbst Gold festival had Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) as its theme, the opera chosen was Armida based on Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata about the Crusaders at war in Jerusalem. On Friday 14 September 2018, Enrico Onofrio conducted the Haydn Philharmonie in the Haydnsaal of Schloss Esterházy, with Ana Maria Labin as Armida, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda (replacing the previously announced Julien Pregardien) as Rinaldo, Roberta Mameli as Zelmira, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as Ubaldo, Christian Senn as Idreno and Fernando Guimaraes as Clotaro.

The concert staging was by Alessio Pizzech; the cast was in costume with loosely Middle-Eastern style for Armida, Idreno, Zelmira and modern cricket-whites for the crusaders Rinaldo, Clotardo and Ubaldo (though Rinaldo had 'gone native' with his shirt unfastened and hanging out of his trousers). The cast performed on a small podium running in front of the orchestra, recitatives were done from memory with scores used for the more elaborate arias. Armida spent much time poring over her book of magic, in fact, her score - a neat solution.

Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Armida was premiered in the theatre at Esterháza in 1784 and was performed there over 50 times as well as being given in Vienna, Turin and Budapest. Schloss Esterhazy had no theatre, but it is known that Haydn produced operas for the prince in the Haydnsaal, so the festival's concert staging was most apt. To put the piece into context, Armida was premiered two years before Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro premiered at Vienna's Burgtheater whilst Gluck's equally ground-breaking Orfeo ed Euridice premiered at the same theatre in 1762 with the French version appearing in 1774.

The libretto for Armida is somewhat old-fashioned, the first act involves a traditional sequence of exit arias for the main cast members, and throughout the exit aria convention is still strong and there is little opportunity for ensembles in the way that Mozart introduced into his opera serias, Idomeneo (1781) and La Clemenza di Tito (1791). Where Haydn does push the boundaries is in his extended use of accompanied recitative, so that moments like Act Two Scene One have a very French feel, with long sections that are orchestrally accompanied. There are also significant orchestral interludes, with Haydn giving us some terrific music.

The issue of the libretto should not be landed entirely at Haydn's door, he was writing exclusively for Prince Esterhazy and it was the prince's taste which would have been paramount.

Haydn: Armida - Roberta Mameli, Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Roberta Mameli, Ana Maria Labin
Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
The opera unfolds in quite a leisurely fashion. So that in the first two half the subsidiary characters of Zelmira and Idreno get two arias each, with Zelmira's music rivalling that of Armida in difficulty, and Rinaldo's fellow soldiers Ubaldo and Clotardo are introduced in a similar full manner. It is only in the second half of the piece that focus moves properly to Rinaldo and Armida, though Zelmira also gets a third aria.

The piece starts in media res with Rinaldo in love with Armida and at the court of Idreno, King of Damascus. The piece pre-supposes knowledge of the story, we never get a reason to care for Rinaldo. Armida lasted over three hours with just one interval and was frankly too long. When the plot did get going Haydn continued to linger, writing some terrific music which however simply held up the action.

With such a rarely performed work, staying true to the composer's original intentions was both valuable and important, but if a company were to stage Armida I think that a blue pencil would be important.

Ana Maria Labin was terrific as Armida, creating a three-dimensional theatrical character who dominated the stage, by turns seductive, snarling and searing, but always a sorceress. Labin also dazzled with her technical skill, this was a bravura performance in terms of both music and drama. Unfortunately, this vividness of performance was not quite matched by the other principals.

Haydn: Armida - Haydn Philharmonie - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Haydn Philharmonie - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Singing Rinaldo, Spanish tenor Francisco Fernandez-Rueda threw himself into the role with great commitment. He is a lyric tenor and the quieter moments suited him best and he was not able to match Labin for her bravura drama, nor did he have the sort of heroic ping to his voice which the role needs. But it is a long role, and he impressed with his stamina and the sheer intensity with which he gave himself to the drama.

Roberta Mamelli was stunning as Zelmira, singing her arias with brilliant skill and using striking body language to ensure a differentiation from Labin's Armida, given that Haydn's music does not seem to do this adequately. And it was hardly Mamelli's fault that the drama leaves Zelmira rather redundant.

Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani was Ubaldo, one of Rinaldo's fellow knights and the man who returns Rinaldo to his purpose. Giustiniani has a lovely lyric tenor voice and here it was superbly suited to the role, with Giustiniani impressing with his sense of style in both his arias. Christian Senn looked the part as Idreno and blustered admirably. He sang his two arias with skill, yet lacked the real dark, a dramatic edge which perhaps the role needs. Fernando Guimaraes drew the short straw as Clodardo, having only one aria which he sang neatly and he provided valuable support during the drama.

As a distinguished symphonist, Haydn clearly had a great interest in the orchestra and there was plenty for them to do from the dramatic overture to the many orchestral interludes and accompanied recitatives, including the long scene where Rinaldo encounters the magic wood where Armida's soul resides. Enrico Onofri drew finely engaged playing from the Haydn Philharmonie. Whilst playing on modern instruments, there was a period aura aboout the performance with lithe tones from the strings, plangent woodwind and lively speeds. The players were clearly engaged with the drama and helped make a strong case for Haydn's music.

Alesso Pizzech's production made imaginative and lively use of his relatively limited space and resources. He ensured that the drama always engaged, and solved the opera's dramatic requirements neatly.

Haydn: Armida - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn's Armida will never be a repertory piece yet it is important that it be heard and Herbst Gold must be congratulated for giving us such an engaging performance. Next year the festival will be presenting Haydn's unfinished London opera L'animo del filosofo.

Recommended Recording: Haydn Armida - Cecilia Bartoli, Patricia Petibon, Christoph Pregardien, Concentus Musicus Wien, cond: Nikolaus Harnoncourt - available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra  - interview
  • Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes  - interview
  • In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa - feature
  • Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Distracting opera for distracted times: The Second Violinist (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc  - feature
  • An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting Enchanted Island from British Youth Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony - interview
  • A vivid theatrical, orchestral experience: John Eliot Gardiner's all-Berlioz prom   (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • Mesmerising: Simone Spagnolo's new philosophical, operatic mono-drama 'Faust, Alberta'  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon (★★★½)  - CD review
  •  Home

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