What's Not To Love?
Conductor Thomas Crawford and the American Classical Orchestra (photo by William Neumann)
HAYDN FANS REJOICE! Next week, on Tuesday, February 23, the American Classical Orchestra will present a semi-staged version of Haydn’s rarely-heard L’isola disabitata at Alice Tully Hall, directed by Cynthia Edwards. The concert will be conducted by Thomas Crawford, who says this opera contains “fabulous arias on a par with Mozart's.” The orchestration is superior to Mozart's, he continues, and “a libretto by the leading 18th-century opera story teller [Metastasio], and a fairy tale ending. As I prepare the score for this almost-never heard music, I find myself asking ‘What's not to love?'”
We wanted to know more, and Maestro Crawford was kind enough to find some time for us.
CLASSICAL TV: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of L’isola disabitata—why you wanted to do it now and what, in general, makes the opera so interesting to you?
THOMAS CRAWFORD: I performed this opera early in my career and found it to be full of surprises. I knew that Haydn wrote many operas and I knew that they are virtually unknown today. It took a lot of effort even to acquire adequate performance scores, and I approached the whole project as an experiment with my audience and musicians. It turned out to be a huge success with all. People were taken aback by the quality of the arias.... all fully on a par with the best of the Mozart arias.... the impeccable orchestral writing by Haydn the master symphonist, the straightforward plot by the most famous of 18th century librettists, the major instrumental solos that emerge from the texture with equal footing alongside the vocal solos, the rousing quartet finale that stands among the greatest Mozart ones, and the fully symphonic overture. My first performance was with modern instruments and average singers. Today, we can present it with the idiomatic period instruments and young professional singers with significant early careers.
CTV: The opera was written for the Esterhazy court. Was it a success there?
TC: There were not many performances, and Haydn revised the score after the première. But, there was a major fire that burned down the Esterhazy opera house two weeks ahead of the premiere (which was thus moved to a smaller venue), so who knows how much this 'torched' the reception!
CTV: Is the opera done often? I can’t remember a previous New York production.
TC: I have no indication that it has been done in New York City.
CTV: Haydn’s work can be so friendly to contemporary ears—with structural economy and thrilling invention and wit. Are these qualities reflected in L’isola disabitata, and if so, how?
TC: L'isola houses the very best of Haydn's skills. Yes the textures are easy-on-the-ear in the way of classical era writing. One is immediately struck by what a collaborative score this is, using the instruments and voices in equal measure throughout. This was because of Haydn's unique familiarity and confidence with his Esterhazy players. There is a major cello solo because Haydn had a major cellist in his band, and so forth. Haydn's wit is often present, with clever and subtle quips and wiggles, impersonations, and tongue-in-cheek moments that flee by. There is not a dull moment in this ninety-minute opera. A full-throated overture is balanced with a thrilling finale. One technical feature that is very unusual is that all of the recitative, the sung dialogue, is fully scored for the entire orchestra to accompany. This too contributes to the sense that everyone is to participate at all times. This is a remarkably engaged and engaging work.
Why Haydn operas are not performed far more often? No other reason than that history has thus far chosen Mozart as the darling of the late 18th-century Austrian composers. Every ounce of this and many other of the Haydn operas are of equal quality to Mozart's.
CTV: We’ll be listening carefully to the entire work, of course, but can you give those of us who haven’t heard it one moment or section to list fort especially…?
TC: There are only seven arias, each of which is well-balanced, expertly written, expressive melodies. I think it is also worth noting that the libretto presents as a serious story, yet Haydn's wit pervades and humor abounds-- as such we chose to make our production include some playful touches and we set it in the 1960s.
I also have a personal reflection. I'm moved by the intelligence and talent of our four young singers. As a classically trained musician living in the same pop-youth-culture as the rest of us, I'm aware how the arts draw the mind and soul to aspiring levels via study of great works from long ago. Doing a rarely-performed 250-year-old opera naturally has a sense of newness and discovery for all of us, but it is moving for me to see how openly our performers embrace emotions that are wholly new. We spend thousands of hours learning Bach or Shakespeare not merely to bring old works to living audiences. We do so because it immerses us into a world of deep thought and life experiences. Today we measure our life experiences in nano-seconds and short attention span. Here, the ACO and our sophisticated young singers fully invest with open minds and substantial skills. It feels like we may even benefit as much as did the participants in 1779 at Esterhazy.
For more about the American Classical Orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s L’Isola disabitata at Alice Tully Hall, go here.
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This performance in the historic concert hall of Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, Austria, where Haydn worked as Kapellmeister for more than thirty years, is a tribute to one of the world's greatest musical geniuses, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his death.
Adam Fischer conducts the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, with the Vienna Chamber Choir, featuring soprano Annette Dasch (Angel Gabriel/Eve). Recorded live.
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