HAYDN L’anima del filosofo: Orpheus et Eurydice
Composed for London’s King’s Theatre, Haydn’s Orpheus opera fell victim to aristocratic intrigue and power struggles, and lay unperformed until it was mounted as a vehicle for Maria Callas in Florence in 1951. Although The Philosopher’s Soul, as the opera was titled, contains some glorious music – by 1791 Haydn was virtually incapable of writing routinely – it is hamstrung by a libretto long on platitudinous moralising but hopelessly lacking in any sense of what makes an opera live as drama. Still, the work’s static, oratorio-like nature (for which the composer must take a share of the blame) poses far less of a problem on CD than in the theatre. In a sparse field, the front-runner has long been the 1996 Gramophone Award-winning Hogwood recording, with Cecilia Bartoli and Uwe Heilmann in the title-roles. While not necessarily eclipsing it, this new recording, taken from performances from the Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera, runs it close.
If the svelte period-instrument Orchestra of the Antipodes sometimes yields to the larger, studio-recorded Academy of Ancient Music in polish, Antony Walker imparts more theatrical urgency than Hogwood to numbers like Orfeo’s grieving outburst in Act 2. Vocally the prime attractions are Greek-Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, like Bartoli doubling the roles of Euridice and the Sibyl, and baritone Derek Welton as her father – and the opera’s moraliser-in-chief – Creonte. Eschewing Bartoli’s extremes of expression, Xanthoudakis is a tender, limpid-voiced Euridice, lacking the ideal weight at the bottom of her range but profoundly touching in her death scene, sung with blanched, fragile tone. She is impressive, too, in the Sibyl’s brilliant aria di bravura, despatching the reams of coloratura without Bartoli’s machine-gun aggression. With his mellow baritone and graceful phrasing, Welton makes Creonte more sympathetic than the dark-toned Ildebrando d’Arcangelo for Hogwood, though he musters a fine, ringing sonority for his ‘vengeance’ aria that closes Act 2.
More than Uwe Heilmann for Hogwood, Andrew Goodwin is stretched by the unusually low tessitura of Orfeo’s role. Once or twice – as at the opening of the love duet – he transposes a phrase up an octave. But his tone has an attractive plangency and he shows evident involvement in his three big arias. He and Xanthoudakis sound properly joyful in the love duet. In their assorted roles the chorus sing with firm, youthful tone and plenty of spirit (the Bacchae audibly morphing from dulcet temptresses into bloodthirsty harridans), though the orchestral introductions to the baleful Furies Chorus and the final storm are overladen with infernal shrieks and screeches. As usual with live performances, you’ll also have to put up with a fair amount of crashing and clattering, though the vocal-orchestral balance is generally well managed. If my vote would still go, just, to Hogwood in Haydn’s flawed but intermittently inspired London opera, I’m glad to have heard this new recording, for Xanthoudakis and Welton, and for the mingled style and dramatic energy of Walker’s direction.