Oriental delights anticipating Mozart’s operas

“Zanaide” performed in Bad Lauchstädt. © Gert Mothes

Oriental exotics and intrigue, power struggles, impossible love, betrayal and reconciliation – those ingredients have tempted librettists and opera composers alike. How they dealt with it, had very much to do with the conventions of the time, the taste of the audience, and the availability of good singers. When Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, made his debut in London,  he was appalled by the lack of good singers, and though the King’s Theatre asked him in 1762 to write two operas, he initially refused. However, after the audition of several singers, he agreed, and in 1763, he presented an opera that had long been forgotten, and that I have discovered myself only very recently: Zanaida.

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A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe

haydn_isola_final
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?

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