Opera Scotland

Anima del Filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice The Spirit of Philosophy, or Orpheus and Euridice

Music
Franz Joseph Haydn (born Rohrau, 31 March 1732; died Vienna, 31 May 1809)

Text
Carlo Francesco Badini.

Source
Books 9 and 10 of Metamorphoses by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso 43 BC – 18 AD).

Premières
First performance: Florence (Teatro della Pergola), 9 June 1951.
First UK performance: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 25 August 1967.
First performance in Scotland: As above.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
When Haydn first came to London in 1791 he was recognised as one of the greatest composers in the world, but his extensive operatic output was essentially unknown outside Eszterháza, where the works had originated. He was commissioned to produce a new opera to celebrate the opening of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, but political intrigue prevented its production. Although the resources in terms of orchestra and chorus (particularly in the final Underworld act) were far greater than anything he had known in Hungary, Haydn seems to have been unworried by the fracas, since his generous fee was already in his bank in Vienna, and his concerts were proving an outstanding success. But he never composed another opera. The official title, L’anima del filosofo, seems to have been a half-hearted attempt to distinguish it from the successful Gluck version of Orfeo. Even so, it remained unperformed until 1951 when the Florence Festival produced it with Maria Callas and Boris Christoff conducted by Erich Kleiber. The first British staging, in Edinburgh, featured Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda in the title roles.

Main Characters
Euridice, daughter of Creonte (soprano)
Orfeo (tenor)
Genio – the Sibyl (soprano)
Creonte, King of Thebes (bass)
Pluto, god of the Underworld (bass)

Plot Summary
Euridice flees from her father’s court to escape an arranged marriage to Aristaeus (an important character who never actually appears in the opera). In a nearby forest she is about to be attacked by savage followers of Aristaeus when they are pacified by Orpheus, son of the river god. On learning of his daughter’s rescue, Creon allows her to marry Orpheus. Aristaeus plots revenge by diverting the attention of Orpheus so that his men can abduct Euridice. During her attempt to escape from the kidnappers Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus sings a stirring lament over her corpse. War breaks out between Aristaeus and Creon. After Euridice’s funeral ceremony, Orpheus consults the Sibyl, who tells him to be philosophical and stay calm. If he does this, he will see his wife again. She guides him down to the Underworld. Pluto is moved by his condition and lets Orpheus visit Euridice in the Elysian Fields. Spirits then let him take her back up to Earth, but he is unable to obey their order not to look back, so she dies once more, this time for good. The Sibyl also abandons him. Back on the surface, wretched Orpheus meets some Bacchantes who attempt to lure him to join their orgies. He resists, and so they give him a drink which contains poison. After his agonising death, they prepare to tear him to pieces, but his father, the river god, raises a violent storm. The Bacchantes are drowned, and the body of Orpheus is floated gently off on the waves.

RECORDINGS

OISEAU-LYRE (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1996
Conductor: Christopher Hogwood
Academy of Ancient Music
Cecilia Bartoli (Euridice), Uwe Heilmann (Orfeo), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Creonte)

MYTO (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1967

Conductor: Richard Bonynge.
Scottish National Orchestra
Joan Sutherland (Euridice), Nicolai Gedda (Orfeo), Spiro Malas (Creonte).

Several attempts have been made in modern times to convince the operatic world that Haydn’s works in this form are good enough to hold the stage. Antal Dorati, revealing plenty of musical treasure, recorded eight in the 1970s, and Glyndebourne then staged one of the best of them, La fedeltà premiata, with mixed theatrical success. When Covent Garden followed the success of Bartoli’s recording of L’anima del filosofo by putting on a production, the results were also not entirely successful. Edinburgh experienced a great success in 1965 with an early piece called Le pescatrici (The Fishwives) – a variant on the Cinderella story that has since returned to oblivion. The follow-up two years later was this production of Orfeo ed Euridice, as they called it, with a starry cast (this was the last of Sutherland’s three visits to the Festival, and the only time Gedda sang opera there). The co-production with the Holland Festival was played in tandem with an equally starry production of Bellini’s then rare Capuleti, conducted by Abbado with Pavarotti as Tebaldo.

The SNO in those days played for Scottish Opera, and the Scottish Opera Chorus also appeared in these productions, so apart from the rarity of the work, this Haydn recording, presumably taken from a broadcast, gives an indication of the quality of work of those two groups at the time. Haydn’s opera contains a great deal of superb music. Far more of the legend is depicted than in Gluck’s version, which deals with the matter of Haydn’s final act. The two lead roles are fiendishly difficult, wide ranging and demanding superb coloratura technique. There is a second soprano role, written for a castrato – the Genio, some form of Sybil or prophetess, who has one extremely difficult aria, and not much else. In 1967, a young soloist nominally sang the part, while Sutherland stepped in to sing the big aria. In 1996, Bartoli simply argues that the Genio is a “second self” who accompanies Orpheus in the absence of his wife – she can therefore justify doubling both roles in their entirety.

Musically the piece is full of treasures, and much of the choral writing in the last act is reminiscent of Mozart in Magic Flute mode. Yet an obstinate doubt remains as to whether it can be staged effectively as drama. It seems that there is a fundamental difficulty. Callas, Christoff and Kleiber do not seem to have brought it to life in 1951. Nor does the Sutherland team in 1967, though the director, Rudolf Hartmann, had an excellent track record. It is to be hoped that opera houses will continue to experiment in the belief that a director will eventually find a way to stage it effectively. Meantime, the main issue will be the extent to which either recording remains obtainable, so they should both be snapped up whenever possible. The Hogwood Bartoli version is wonderfully enjoyable in the fleet-footed style now accepted in authentic performances of this repertoire. The Edinburgh performance uses bigger, more obviously dramatic voices, but Bonynge still keeps it all moving at speed, and the presence of an audience enjoying itself is palpable. Gedda and Heilmann both sing the demanding music provided for Orpheus with great aplomb. There are variations in the musical editions, but in such a rarity they are of minor importance.

The Cast

Creonte
 
Euridice
 
First Corista
 
Genio
 
Orfeo
 
Plutone
 Pluto, Lord of the Underworld
Second Corista
 

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