Opera: A Heavenly Voice in a Conceptual Hell ; L'ANIMA DEL FILOSOFO ROYAL OPERA HOUSE LONDON
Pappenheim, Mark, The Independent (London, England)
SO THE waiting is over. Exactly 210 years after its aborted world premiere, and just 12 years after her first Wigmore Hall cancellation, Cecilia Bartoli and Haydn's last opera both finally made it to the London stage last Monday night. And the good news for fans of the raven-haired Roman mezzo-soprano is that, yes, she is every bit as phenomenal in the flesh as she is on CD and, yes, you can hear her at the back of the hall, whether she's firing off one of those almost comically florid round of rapid-fire fioriture or floating one of those ineffably light pianissimos that are her trademarks.
True, there are times when the unabashed delight she displays in her own brilliance risks turning her into the Lesley Garrett of the opera world, the not-so-little girl next-door, too pleased with herself by far. Yet the few hints of human frailty that emerge on stage only serve to humanise her digital image as a slick singing- machine and, if nothing else, the sheer intensity she brings to every note would single her out as a star.
Sadly, L'Anima del Filosofo, the vehicle she's chosen for her UK stage debut, is a theatrical non-starter, served up in a production that is, in the current Continental manner, mere window-dressing posing as yesterday's radical chic. Written for London in 1791, but left unperformed and possibly unfinished, Haydn's last opera is a rehash of the Orpheus legend that only finally made it to the stage in 1951, with Callas as Euridice, and has never entered the repertory since (significantly, none of Haydn's 20-odd operas ever has).
It's not hard to see why. Badini, the librettist - a London- based Italian hack who had landed the job of resident poet at the new King's Theatre in preference to Mozart's brilliant collaborator, Lorenzo da Ponte (now there's an intriguing might-have-been) - was clearly so keen to fill in the bits of the myth that usually get left out that he missed the crux of the story completely: the singer who so famously defeated Death through the power of song here doesn't so much as lift his lyre the whole time he's in Hades, having apparently exhausted his musical resources three acts earlier subduing a tribe of "savage shepherds" (an oxymoron to match Verdi's "chorus of hermits") intent on subjecting Euridice to a fate worse than rape.
The text is full of such omissions and inanities, and Haydn, who was apparently quite happy to set each instalment as it arrived (having already banked his fee), seems to have responded by going on to autopilot, supplying a score that shows characteristic grace, deft orchestration and daring harmony, but is dramatically void. The solo numbers especially betray a continual mismatch between music and meaning: typically, Genio, the sibylline voice of reason, gets the craziest music of all to sing, a pyrotechnic display that makes the Queen of the Night seem almost sane. …