Haydn’s charming divertissement
Jane Mallett Theatre
Joseph Haydn: L'isola disabitata, Hob.XXVIII.9
Marjorie Maltais (Costanza), Valérie Bélanger (Silvia), Asitha Tennekoon (Gernando), Alexander Dobson (Enrico)
Aradia Ensemble, Kevin Mallon (conductor)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (dramatic advisor, lighting designer)
M. Maltais (Courtesy of Voicebox)
Haydn’s L’isola disabitata (“The Deserted Island”) was composed in 1779 for the little court theatre at Eszterháza. It is actually classed as an azione teatrale, a fairly simple proto-opera. The libretto is by Metastasio who we associate with the convoluted entanglements found in opera seria. This compact work has just four soloists (no chorus) and the focus is on a misunderstanding.
Two sisters have been stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island for seven years. The older one, Costanza, believes she was cruelly abandoned by her husband, Gernando. Her sister, Silvia, was so young when the abandonment occurred that she has no memory of what their earlier life was like. She is content to live in a cave. She urges her suicidal sister, who has managed to carve her own epitaph as she contemplates death, to cheer up.
Silvia sees a sailboat approach; she does not know what it is, and soon thereafter sees a man. It turns out to be Enrico who, with Gernando, has come to the island hoping to rescue the women. It turns out that Gernando had been seized by pirates and has just recently managed to escape. He discovers the epitaph and believes Costanza dead. However they finally meet and things work out happily. There is a total of six arias (the women get two each), all of which deftly enlarge upon the sentiments expressed. We get sincere, even anguished, emotions from the serious couple, ably performed by Marjorie Maltais and Asitha Tennekoon, contrasted with more playful passages from the second couple, with some gentle coloratura from Valérie Bélanger. The role of the charmer Enrico is a walk in the park for Alexander Dobson. The action concludes with an ensemble.
Is this an earth-shaking undiscovered masterpiece? No. Is it worth doing? Certainly, especially when well-cast (as here) and prepared with cognizance of the classical style. The Aradia Ensemble, this time with 12 players, could have used a few mores strings for a more suave sound, but Kevin Mallon handles the idiom well. Gillermo Silva-Marin’s semi-staging is once again effective.
The afternoon began with a musical tribute to the late Stuart Hamilton who founded Toronto’s Opera in Concert in 1974 as a showcase for the many young singers and as a means of exploring the byways of the operatic repertory. He ran the series until 1994. He had come to Toronto from western Canada in 1947, establishing himself as a vocal coach and becoming an essential part of the development of the city’s classical vocal scene from that time on. He was also the first director of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio in 1981. The musical tribute was J. S. Bach’s Sinfonia from his Cantata No. 42. It was fitting that they chose something lively as opposed to solemn to commemorate the ebullient Mr. Hamilton.