Pinnock Makes Convincing Case for Haydn’s La vera constanza

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, La vera costanza: Soloists, Royal Academy Sinfonia / Trevor Pinnock (conductor). Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London, 19.11.2012 (MB)

La Baronessa Irene:  Rosalind Coad
Il Marchese Ernesto:  Thomas Elwin
Lisetta:  Sónia Grané
Villotto:  Nicholas Crawley
Rosina:  Helen Bailey
Masino:  Samuel Pantcheff
Il Conte Errico:  Stuart Jackson
Rosina’s son:  Jude Chandler

Jamie Hayes:  director
Tim Reed:  designs
Jake Wiltshire:  lighting

I often fear that I am the only enthusiast for Haydn’s operas. Quite apart from the questions they raise concerning one’s sanity, it is heartening to be reminded that I am not quite in a minority of one. According to Jane Glover’s programme welcome note, Trevor Pinnock, having conducted La fedeltà premiata in 2009 (how I wish I had caught that), suggested following it up with La vera costanza, a proposal Royal Academy Opera ‘embraced … with great enthusiasm’. And so it should have done. This, like many of Haydn’s works, only more so, is an opera whose neglect does shame to all concerned, superior in almost every way to a good number of pieces that inexplicably hold the stage. No, it is not written by we-all-know-who, but apart from that lack of profound characterisation in which some of the Salzburg composer’s greatest genius lies, Haydn is not entirely embarrassed by the comparison here, which is more than can be said of many. La vera costanza is at least to be ranked alongside La finta giardiniera and in some respects – not least the surprisingly sophisticated ensemble writing – even looks towards the likes of Figaro. The likes of the Baroness Irene, Rosina – an unfortunate name in retrospect, I admit – and Count Errico will not linger in our imaginations; there is no one remotely akin to Susanna, let alone the Countess, here, but the advanced level of musical thought is undeniable. Take for instance the canonical writing in the second act finale, or the opening storm music. The latter cannot boast the almost psychoanalytical quality to the opening of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, but it would make an excellent, thrilling, concert overture, and thrilled even more here in the theatre, in so fine a performance.

Part of the problem with Haydn’s operas seems to be an extension of the general problem Haydn’s music faces: beloved of all true musicians, it rarely seems to appeal to non-musicians. Wagner adored Haydn’s music, and increasingly so, often comparing his symphonic writing favourably to Mozart’s. (A parallel or opposing error one often comes up against is gross underestimation of Mozart as a symphonist, on account of his writing being so very different from that of Haydn and Beethoven, but that is a cause for another day.)  I can only assume that it is a lack of formal understanding that means many listeners simply do not follow as attentively as they must what Haydn is doing and how he rings his changes. The strange inability truly to characterise in musical terms remains a considerably shortcoming, of course, and a shortcoming that cannot be ascribed simply to formal convention, yet the music is so glorious – that of the opening scene alone – that one can forgive a lot. Indeed, in order fairly to dismiss Haydn as an opera composer it would have to be on that basis alone and one would most likely therefore have to confine oneself exclusively to Monteverdi, Purcell, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, Berg, and Janáček. I for one have never encountered someone who fell into that category.

Trevor Pinnock led a gripping account of the score by the Royal Academy Sinfonia. I wondered during the opening storm whether he might be tempted to drive a little harder, a little too hard, but was delighted to have my fears assuaged. This was a performance full of life, which yielded where necessary, and which never once failed to delineate Haydn’s musico-dramatic structures, whether at a micro- or a macro-level. Only occasionally did I feel the lack of a greater body of strings ( Those few moments of relative thinness aside, I have nothing but praise for a stylish, warm, alert performance from all concerned. Chad Kelley’s harpsichord continuo was also a model of its kind, mercifully free of the ludicrous exhibitionism in favour in certain quarters.

Moreover, every member of this young cast contributed to the overall success, every one of them contributing something positive. (If only one could say that of most performances on starrier stages, the contrast with a recent Götterdämmerung being especially glaring, from the out-of-his-depth conductor down…)  Italian pronunciation and diction were excellent throughout; the ability to shape a phrase was equally apparent. All performances exuded dramatic and musical honesty and understanding. If I was especially taken with Helen Bailey’s portrayal of the sentimental – in the eighteenth-century sense – heroine Rosina, abandoned by the Count as a consequence of the Baroness’s machinations, that was perhaps a matter of the role as much as anything else, though Crawley has a distinctive voice which, allied with stage presence, ought to mark her out in the future. Rosalind Coad and Sónia Grané both entered into their roles with spirit and style. Thomas Elwin and Nicholas Crawley fashioned finely-honed marriages of words, music, and gesture, very much with eyes – and ears – for what Haydn’s prodigal inventiveness requested. Samuel Pantcheff’s Masino showed keen awareness for the social differentiation of characters in Haydn’s dramma giocoso, whilst Stuart Jackson’s portrayal of the Count, after a slightly gluff start, blossomed into something rather affecting, partly on account of his command of the text. Even Jude Chandler delivered his spoken line as Rosina’s son in convincing Italian.

The production by Jamie Hayes was richly rewarding too. It had no especial ‘point’ to make, but keen direction of the singers, within a somewhat stylised – no pandering false naïveté – evocation of eighteenth-century manners proved a perfect setting for Haydn’s music to work its wonders. This was without a shadow of a doubt the best live performance I have yet heard of a Haydn opera – and that includes Armida at the Salzburg Festival.

Mark Berry