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Getting acquainted with little-known Haydn

The Jane Mallet Theatre
01/30/2011 -  
Joseph Haydn: La fedeltà premiata
Susanne Holmes (Celia/Fillide), Graham Thomson (Fileno), Marco Arthur Petracchi (Malibeo), Farah Hack (Nerina), Lesley Bouza (Amaranta), Rocco Rupolo (Lindoro), James Levesque (Conte Perrucchetto), Charlotte Knight (Diana)
The Classical Music Consort, Asiq Aziz (Conductor)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (Dramatic Advisor)

F. Hack (Courtesy of Opera in Concert)

Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata (“Fidelity Rewarded”) seems quite the oddity when we compare it with better-known operas from its era. It comes close on the heels of Gluck’s reform operas (Iphigénie en Tauride, for example, was premiered in 1779) with their high serious plots involving noble characters ready to sacrifice themselves in the name of love - and then happily being spared after all. Mozart’s Idomeneo (premiered later the same year, 1781, as Haydn’s work) centres on the same theme.

La fedeltà premiata (with a libretto that provided Cimarosa with an opera just two years previously) turns noble sentiments upside down. The wellspring of the plot is the goddess Diana who is angered by something or other and demands that there be an annual sacrifice (to a dragon!) of a faithful couple until an individual voluntarily sacrifices him or herself. The result is that in the vicinity of her temple (Cumae as it turns out - it could be anywhere) the locals (nymphs and shepherds - the piece is a dramma pastorale giocoso) who are truly in love must hide the fact. W. S. Gilbert would have relished the topsy-turvy situation. The plot shows us the effects of the curse on seven characters. One, the temple’s priest, is exempt from the curse and does his best to capitalize on the situation.

It takes a good deal of exposition to work through the various entanglements and subterfuges among the players while giving each one an aria or so to express ever-changing, conflicted passions, and one result is a rather lopsided structure: the first act lasts 90 minutes, which is longer than the ensuing two acts combined. We first meet Malibeo, Diana’s ever-calculating priest, who woos Amaranta, a local nymph. Her brother Lindoro has a rocky relationship with Nerina. A self-dramatizing count, Perrucchetto, arrives. It turns out he specializes in declaring a passionate attachment toward every woman he meets, first Amaranta, who is quite taken with him, and then Nerina, who finds him vastly amusing.

Every comedy has a serious couple, and that is who we meet next. Celia appears and she is very melancholy at being parted from her swain Fileno. Lindoro is attracted to her. The distraught Fileno appears, believing Celia dead as a result of a snake bite. For reasons never made clear he calls her Fillide. (Note to librettists: giving one character two names in the midst of a complicated plot gives rise to serious audience confusion.) He is delighted to find her alive but is then immediately cast down when she (remember the curse) rejects him. Even though Fileno is the stalwart among the men he has his moment of comedy when, in his anguish, he resolves to stab himself and is foiled when his spear breaks. He then runs off looking for a cliff to jump from but obviously does not find it. It is he who finally lifts the curse by vowing to sacrifice himself. This pleases Diana who, while lifting the curse, shoots Malibeo with one of her arrows. (I’ve skipped over several plots points, such as a boar hunt and an attempt to frame Perruchetto and Celia as faithful lovers so that they will be thrown to the dragon - who turns out to be Diana in disguise.) At the finale three happy couples are free to declare their love openly (although one wonders just how faithful Perruchetto will be to Amaranta.) A brief and cheerful moralizing ensemble number concludes the work.

Making their debut with OIC is Toronto’s Classical Music Consort (they seem to prefer classicalmusicconsort) under Ashiq Aziz conducting from a harpsichord. A few moments of swimmy intonation aside, the 18-member ensemble handles the many moods of the lively score with assurance. Let’s hope OIC is successful in its plans to do more performances with orchestral accompaniment.

Outstanding among the singers is Marco Arthur Petracchi as Malibeo for his trenchant delivery of both words and music. His training and experience in Italy have had positive results. (His death shriek was excellent as well.) Farah Hack sparkles as Nerina while Susanne Holmes displays an attractive voice as the melancholy Celia/Fillide. Graham Thomson was ever stalwart in voice and demeanour as the faithful Fileno, and James Levesque made for a bluff Perruchetto. Rocco Rupolo, still at a youthful stage in his career, has a remarkably easy, natural sound. Lesley Bouza dealt ably with the role of the calculating Amaranta. As in so many operas of this type, the role of the goddess gives the performer (the comely Charlotte Knight in this case) hardly any time at all to make much of an impression.

With all its deceptions and turnabouts the piece would surly work better staged than in concert form (or more accurately enhanced concert form: Opera in Concert now has 40 years of experience and it shows in deft handling of entrances and exits with telling bits of action). A tumbling blizzard of titles fails to elucidate every plot turn. Still, this was a valuable glimpse of a well-known (perhaps taken for granted) composer whose stage works are still in the process of emerging from obscurity.

Michael Johnson



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