A Pocket-sized Opera Inspired by Robinson Crusoe

Can you spot those cruel pirates? © Charles Thibo

Haydn didn’t write operas, did he? He was the champion of chamber music and a prolific writer of symphonies, but operas? No, no, no. That’s what I thought and I was wrong. Half a year ago I enjoyed the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Hélène Grimaud performing Bartok’s Piano Concert No. 3, but the warm-up of the orchestra alone had already justified buying that no-so-cheap ticket. The Dutch ensemble, shrunk to the size of a chamber orchestra, performed the overture in G minor of Haydn’s opera “L’Isola Disabitata” (The Lonely Island) – a lovely piece of music that made me curious. What would an opera written by Haydn sound like?

Four singers only

Splendid. I sounds just splendid. To put things in perspective: Joseph  Haydn wrote 13 Italian style operas and nine pieces of music for puppet operas and incidental music. Writing an opera was by no means a one time aberration, no, Haydn was an experienced composer of operas. “L’Isola Disabitata”, written in 1779, was the ninth opera he wrote, and it is remarkable in several ways. The drama in two acts needs only four singers, a pocket-size orchestra and it maintains the unity of time and space i.e. the plot takes place in one location and in one single time span only. Thus it was perfectly adapted to be performed at the private theater of Esterhaza, the castle of Haydn’s patron Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, at the time known as the “Hungarian Versailles”.

A tragic moment is linked to the premiere of this opera. Haydn’s manuscript is the only one of all his opera scores that does not exist anymore. It was destroyed when Esterhaza burned downed on November 18, 1779, 18 days before the schedule premiere. Only bars 1 to 57 of the overture were spared. However Haydn had been prescient enough to have the score copied, and the performance proceeded as planned.

A libretto signed Metastasio

The libretto was written by Vienna’s famous librettist Pietro Metastasio, poet at the Imperial Court from 1729 until his death in 1782. The plot, inspired by Daniel Defoe’s novel “Robinson Crusoe”, is simple enough: Gernando (tenor) and his wife Constanze (mezzo-soprano) as well as Silvia (soprano), Constanze’s younger sister, are sailing to India and strand on a remote island. While the two women sleep in a cave, Gernando is abducted by pirates. Constanze believes her husband has abandoned her. She is desperate about their fortune and starts carving her story in a rock.

After some time a ship approaches. Gernando, freed and returning to search for his wife,  and  his friend Enrico (baritone) disembark, both wearing Indian clothes. The beach is empty, Constanze has left the stage (busy carving that stone, I guess) and Silvia has gone into hiding. She does not recognize Gernando. Gernando finds Constanze’s carved message and believes her dead. He decides to stay at the island to die there. Enrico however orders the sailors to take his friend back to the ship by force. Silvia, having decided that Enrico is harmless, even sweet, comes out into the open and informs Enrico that Constanze is alive. The adventure has a happy ending. Gernando explains that he did not abandon Constanze; Constanze and Silvia fall into the arms of Gernando and Enrico respectively.

Opera seria? Opera buffa?

The simplicity of the story should not delude you. Haydn’s music is exquisite and in many ways its language is very close to Mozart’s. All dialogues are sung, none are spoken. Most musical themes and the dialogues are rather brief and retrace the psychological development of the four characters. The general mood is serious, fatalistic, but not tragic. The trick is: What sounded fatalistic in the 18th century sounds a lot more like an opera buffa* today. And that makes listening to it a true delight!

Act I opens on Constanze’s long lamentation about the cruelty of men in general and Gernando’s betrayal more specifically. Silvia tries in vain to console her – a very emotional dialogue. A little later a first highlight: Enrico sings a beautiful, forceful aria about Gernando’s devotion to Constanze when the two men hit the beach. Silvia, not hearing what the two men say in her hide-out, follows up with an heart-warming aria of her own: “What on earth have I seen? It is not a man…” And she spells out her apprehension of men’s violence. And since “it” does not wear a dress, “it wasn’t a girl either”!

In Act II Silvia and Enrico engage in an almost comical dialogue. Enrico, in love, openly courts her (“Listen to me, beautiful nymph…”), while Silvia is confused. She likes Enrico, but at the same time wants him to keep his distance. He wins her over nevertheless and towards the end of the act Constanze’s confusion about Gernando’s departure from the island is cleared up: “He did not abandon you, he was robbed from you…”

I have now listened several times to the recording by the “L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra” under the Austrian female conductor Michi Gaigg and I do not grow tired of it. The role of Constanze is sung by Ulrike Hofbauer, the one of Silvia by Barbara Kraus, while Gernando and Enrico are interpreted by Christian Zenker and Reinhard May. They used a score that Haydn revised in 1802, the orchestra being composed of a flute, two oboes, a bassoon, two harps, strings and basso continuo*.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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