Stage Door Review 2023

L’Anima del filosofo

Sunday, May 28, 2023


by Franz Joseph Haydn, directed by Nico Krell

Faculty of Music, University of Toronto & Schulich School of Music, McGill University, MacMillan Theatre,Toronto

May 26-27, 2023

Coro: “O poter dell’armonia!

La favella degli de

Ed il nettare tu sei

Dell’afflitta umanità”

The schools of music of the University of Toronto and of McGill University plus several other institutions and a host of donors have combined to present the North American premiere of a fully staged production of Haydn’s opera L’Anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (1791)The result confirms that Haydn’s opera does not deserve to have fallen into obscurity. It presents a radical new vision of the Orpheus myth that complements Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), the most familiar operatic version of the myth. We have to thank everyone involved for bringing Haydn’s version to life.

In 1791 Haydn, already a renowned composer, was in London where he was commissioned to write an opera for the inauguration of The King’s Theatre. Because of a dispute between George III and the Prince of Wales Haydn was refused permission to stage it. Haydn had been paid in advance and abandoned the nearly completed score which would become the last opera he ever wrote.

H.C. Robbins Landon, who helped revive Haydn’s reputation in the 20th century and established the chronological order of Haydn’s symphonies, also discovered the manuscript of Haydn’s Orfeo and created its first complete edition. Thus, an opera written in 1791 in London had its first performance in 1951 in Florence. It was a starry one, too, featuring Maria Callas and Boris Christoff conducted by Erich Kleiber.

What is most notable about Haydn’s Orfeo, besides its unceasing flow of extraordinary music, is its libretto by Carlo Francesco Badini, which is very unlike Ranieri de' Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck. Calzabigi begins with Orfeo already mourning Euridice’s death and has a happy ending where Euridice is restored to Orfeo despite his having disobeyed Pluto’s injunction not to look back.

Badini’s libretto tells the entire story of Orpheus and Eurydice, from before their marriage and concludes with Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads. Badini not only places the story of the lovers within the larger context of their lives but also places it within a social context. Badini invents the character of Creonte, Euridice’s father, and that of Arideo, the man that Creonte has promised Euridice in marriage.

In Badini, Orfeo saves Euridice from savage beasts by charming them with his music. For this service, Creonte makes the bold decision to renege on his promise with Arideo and give Euridice’s hand in marriage to Orfeo instead. This incites the anger of Arideo and his followers who pursue Euridice when she is alone. It is in fleeing them, not Aristaeus as in Virgil’s version of the story, that she steps on a poisonous viper, is bitten and dies.

Badini also gives the tale a far from happy ending, but ine conforming to ancient myth. Orfeo again looks back at Euridice thus causing her second death. If that fate were not cruel enough, when Orfeo retreats back to the surface of the earth, he is chided by Maenads, here called Baccanti, who are outraged by his vow of chastity and murder him by tearing him limb from limb. Their punishment is to drown on the very island where they seekt refuge.

Thus, Badini links a chain of calamities, including rebellion, to the king’s decision to marry Euridice to Orfeo. Given that the French Revolution had begun only two years earlier, it is likely that George III or the Prince of Wales would have thought any opera associating a ruler with rebellion would be off limits.

Ideally, in mounting an opera for an audience who has never seen it, a director should concentrate on interfering as little as possible with the opera itself. After all, people, even if they are paying nothing as in this case, are coming to see the rare opera and not the director’s vision of it. Unfortunately, Uruguayan director Nico Krell, now at Princeton University, shows himself a young proponent of Regietheater and interferes with our appreciation of the opera in numerous ways.

The worse thing an opera director can do is to interfere with the music, but that is exactly what Krell does. Krell decides to places the Land Acknowledgement and an unnecessary speech about the background story between the overture and the first aria. He thus prevents us from seeing how the one leads into the other. Worse, he has Orfeo deliver his first words via a microphone upon realizing he has killed Euridice in Hades, when we should be hearing the unamplified singer himself at such a crucial moment.

Even worse throughout Orfeo’s long aria “Mi sento languire” where he expresses his anger and remorse, Krell plays the recorded sound of bombs exploding making it difficult even to hear Orfeo properly. Then as a final insult to Haydn’s music, Krell has the sound of a flood play over the final chorus. The final sound we hear is not Haydn’s music which has portrayed the flood, but Krell’s recording of a flood. It pushed me beyond anger to see how insensitive Krell is to an audience hearing new music by Haydn for the very first time.

Otherwise, Krell’s work was a hodgepodge of nonsensical directorial gestures. Why have a mobile spotlight with someone arranging its long cord distractingly follow Orfeo and Euridice about during their first duet “Come il foco allo splendore”? Krell has lights puzzlingly pop on on the ends of sticks which then bob over to the savage beasts on the other side of the stage to show the influence of Orfeo’s music on them. Why not simply have Orfeo sing directly to the beasts avoid these lights that disturb our focus on Orfeo?

So many of the savage beasts menacing Euridice use crutches and sticks that it looks more like she is being threatened by people rather than animals. The chorus play many different roles from beasts, to supporters of Arideo, to mourners at Euridice’s funeral, to the dead in Hades. Badini is keen to show us how Orfeo’s life ended in being torn apart by Maenads. Krell, sad to say, does not give us this ending. Instead, he has Orfeo wander into a troop of what seem to be Arideo’s supporters where he dies weaponless in battle.

Civil war should be enough of an outer context in which to situate the Orpheus story, but Krell wants to add a current cause to the mix – i.e., global pollution. Therefore, just before Orfeo meets his killers, Krell has a snow cradle suspended above the stage dump miscellaneous garbage including lots of plastic bags onto the stage. In Act 1, Krell had Orfeo throw away the plastic bag that his takeaway picnic with Euridice had come in and Krell had it tied to a line to linger in the air. Does that mean that our hero Orfeo is partially responsible for the final inundation of the earth when pollution causes the ice caps to melt? Is that really something we should be thinking about when Orfeo has just caused his wife’s second death and is about to meet his own? I think not.

Luckily, despite Krell’s obstructive direction the entire cast and the McGill Baroque Orchestra under Dorian Komanoff Bandy go all out to serve Haydn’s music and to make as positive an impression as possible. When you hear Haydn’s music for this Orfeo, it is easy to understand why it has attracted such singers as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Cecilia Bartoli. The role of Euridice requires a coloratura soprano of extraordinary ability as does the role of the Genio, the spirit that guides Orfeo to the Underworld. The piece also demands a coloratura tenor as Orfeo of the rare kind often featured in Rossini’s operas. This means that in addition to being a radical take on the Orpheus myth, the opera is also a showcase for virtuoso singing.

Of the professional singers who play the four main roles, only one was fully up to the task. Neither Asitha Tennekoon nor Lindsay McIntyre have any coloratura roles in their resumés, so it was very brave of them to take on the roles of Orfeo and Euridice.  Haydn and his librettist graciously give both characters extensive recitatives before they launch into their first spectacular aria, “Filomena abbandonata” for Euridice and “Cara speme! Alme di scoglio!” for Orfeo. Both sang their recitatives with clarity and passion, but although they hit all the notes, some exceedingly high, in their arias, it was clear that singing these arias required a lot of effort. Ideally, of course, the singing of difficult roles in opera should appear effortless.

Both Tennekoon and McIntyre were heard to much better advantage in the slower, more lyrical portions of the score. McIntyre’s account of Euridice’s second death “Dov'è il dolce amato sposo” was especially moving both in McIntyre’s skillful colouring of her bright soprano to indicate death’s increasing hold on her and in the subtlety of her acting. Similarly, the mellowness of Tennekoon’s tenor shone best in a measured aria like “Cara speme! Alme di scoglio!” where Orfeo briefly enjoys his happiness. Together Tennekoon and McIntyre soar beautifully together in “Come il foco allo splendore” the couple’s first duet.

As Creonte, baritone Parker Clements was rather inclined to bluster in his first aria where Creonte decides to give Euridice to Orfeo. In his second aria, however, when Creonte learns of Euridice’s death, Clements rose to the occasion and powerfully sang and acted Creonte’s complex mixture of anger and grief in “Mai non sia inulto. Fulmina e tuona”.

The star of the evening, however, turned out to be Maeve Palmer as the Genio. The Genio’s aria “Al tuo seno fortunato” urging Orfeo not to despair but to brave Hades to reclaim his bride is a fantastic virtuoso aria with a martial note, accompanied as it is with trumpet. Parker sang the extensive coloratura runs and frequent stratospheric notes with total confidence and ease. For this thrilling account Palmer was justly rewarded with the loudest and longest applause of the evening.

One special pleasure of Haydn’s score is his pervasive use of a chorus who represent everything from ordinary citizens to rebels, wild beasts, spirits of love and the raging dead. The student chorus, prepared by Tafemusik’s Ivar Taurins, sang beautifully throughout. In fact, the diction of the chorus and of the principals was so clear that anyone who knows Italian would find no need to look at the surtitles.

McGill Baroque Orchestra under Dorian Bandy was especially impressive in the opera’s overture with Bandy maintaining fine balance between the winds and the strings. Despite Bandy’s best efforts a certain slackness in precision and intonation crept in during Act 1. Yet, after intermission, the orchestra rallied, approached the score with renewed vigour and produced very impressive results.

L’Anima del filosofo is one of those operas that one reads about but assumes that one will never see. The great advantage of Krell’s direction, for all its faults, was that it demonstrated conclusively that Haydn’s last opera is imminently stage-worthy. Haydn’s operas are often accused of not being dramatic, but if Krell, Bandy and the cast proved anything it was that Haydn’s Orpheus opera is as packed with incident as it is with glorious music. Let’s hope that this North American stage premiere has an influence on programming on this continent because this Haydn opera should never slip into obscurity again.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Illustration from poster for Orfeo; Asitha Tennekoon, Parker Clements, Lindsay McIntyre and Maeve Palmer.

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