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Philosophical investigations

Covent Garden
10/15/2001 -  and 18, 22, 24, 27, 31 October
Joseph Haydn: L'anima del filosofo
Cecilia Bartoli (Euridice/Genio), Roberto Saccà (Orfeo), Gerald Finley (Creonte), Brindley Sherratt (Plutone/Coristo), Quentin Hayes, Nigel Cliffe, James Bobby, Robin Leggatte (Coristi)

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Christopher Hogwood (conductor), Jürgen Flimm (director)

The programme says ominously that this production of Haydn's last opera, L'anima del filosofo originated at the Vienna Festival, while the set and costumes are from the Zürich Opera House. When the production is also a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli, an opera star of the old school who sells incredible numbers of recordings, you might expect a Frankenstein's monster cobbled together to provide a couple of scenes where she can give us her Euridice and Genio. There is a touch of that about the performance: Bartoli's Euridice (in a concert frock) and Roberto Saccà's Orfeo are a pretty couple soppily in love in an otherwise angular, brutal world, and it's not really clear whether this is a concept or a cop out. Similarly, although Bartoli appears in a very discreet pants suit as the Genio and swaggers a bit, she still acts with puppy-dog charm when not throwing out coloratura fireworks in stand-and-deliver mode. If Euridice and the Genio represent the alter egos that complete the lover's soul (as the doubling implies and Bartoli argues in a note in the programme) then they are abstract, minor figures, not vivacious characters. But the loving couple is clearly part of the operatic package, and perhaps Flimm gets away with it.

The real problem is the work itself, of course. Euridice's arias are certainly extractable -- one fear-of-death aria and one real death aria -- and are interesting in that they are half way to bel canto. And the Genio's aria is an old-style set piece, though more Riccardo Broscchi than Handel. But L'anima del filosofo, originally written for London, is a Gesamtkunstwerk that combines something like Handel's oratorio methods, especially dramatic choruses, with stage spectacle. Moreover, it is an abstract allegory, an anatomy of the titular soul of the philosopher, who must suppress rage and control emotion with reason, as embodied in music. There is a line about the sun that suggests Badini, the librettist, might have been looking at ideas attributed to the Platonizing Stoic Posidonius, and the general framework is a synthesis of the Platonic tripartite soul and Stoicism, particularly illustrated in the use of fire in the first act and water in the last to embody the cataclysms caused by unchecked rage (of the monsters and the Bacchantes respectively). The deep structure is somewhat familiar these days from Rameau's librettos, and there's even a touch of the Ring about it. But the existing score and libretto are not complete. Although Haydn delivered the work to meet his contract, the production had already been canned. And Badini, a peer of Da Ponte, didn't get a chance to make final changes during rehearsals. It's both complex and basically incoherent, in spite of its up-front appeals to reason.

Jürgen Flimm's production highlights the themes of rage and reason (and the framing fire and water), in something like a humourless Magic flute. This probably isn't that far adrift, since the Magic flute is a parody of Enlightenment attitudes. But while the decor is modern (space-alien savages and white-face spokesmen of reason with pointing artificial hands, agents of death in stove-pipe hats, projected images), the action is probably close to authentic for the period -- stand and sing, most of the time. The final chorus of Bacchantes might be the staidest ever. This would work if the audience had a chance of working out what was going on. But the work is so difficult for modern audiences -- even one of the contributors to the programme gets into the non-question of which character is the philosopher -- that it risks becoming a concert with very obscure goings on between the singing.

At least Bartoli travels in style. Saccà is attractive in the title role, charismatic enough to justify the photos of rock stars in the programme, though vocally uninteresting, while Gerald Finley as Creonte, the embodiment of controlled emotion, was superb. The Coristi (various messengers and narrators), all house regulars, and the chorus all sang excellently. Bartoli herself sang the music with awesome skill and engagement, but made some sounds in the process that would have been totally bizarre taken out of context.

Christopher Hogwood worked the orchestra -- huge by the standards of Haydn's operas, but still chamber size -- hard throughout, with powerful and fascinating results. Even more than the choruses, the orchestral part shows Haydn well on the way to the Creation.

The audience, many of whom knew it was going to be perfect, applauded furiously, which shows how much attention they'd been paying, and booed Flimm and the production team equally furiously. Yet Bartoli has been stating her wholehearted commitment to the whole project in interviews. Let us hope she doesn't decide not to come back.

H.E. Elsom



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