New Chamber Opera’s cast are excellent in Haydn’s La vera costanza which is effectively dramatic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom New Chamber Opera – Haydn, La vera costanza: Soloists, The Band of Instruments / Steven Devine (conductor). New College, Oxford, 26.6.2024. (CR)

Franz Joseph Haydn

Director – Michael Burden

Rosina – Aine Smith
Baroness Irene – Lara Marie Müller
Lisetta – Kate Semmens
Count Errico – Joseph Doody
Marquis Ernesto – David Horton
Masino – Robert Forrest
Villotto – Thomas Niesser

The plot of Haydn’s La vera costanza (1779, but reconstructed in 1785) bears some similarities to the famous story of patient Griselda, set as an opera by various composers, in which the virtue of a wife is tested. But, in combining elements of an eighteenth century ‘sentimental’ drama with opera buffa, the narrative comprises various more comical and sensational twists. Baroness Irene intends to put an end to her nephew, Count Errico’s love interest in the fishermaid Rosina, by trying to draw her attention to the hapless Villotto instead. Although Errico and Rosina have already been married in secret, and despite the tests to her fidelity by the Baroness, Villotto and even Errico, who all plot to murder her at one point or other owing to misunderstandings (wilful and accidental), virtue finally triumphs as she remains the true constant of the opera’s title. Comic subplots involve the Baroness’s own love interest in the younger Marquis Ernesto, and Lisetta’s interest in Rosina’s brother Masino, resulting in the usual web of conflicted intrigue and motivations which drive the narrative.

With judicious cuts, and a lively translation of the libretto by Simon Rees with modern idioms, Michael Burden’s production doesn’t impose any particular concept upon a scenario which could well come under the scrutiny and critique of contemporary feminist thought, but rather lets the action speak in its own more ironic and idiosyncratic terms. Within the context of what is an essentially chamber performance al fresco and in more or less in the round, with a minimal set, the cast are excellently engaged with the temper and pace of the work so that the drama is very effectively carried by their acting and choreography. That helps to make sense of the convoluted threads of the plot, and clear diction from the singers also enables the dialogue, with its varieties of humour, to be followed easily, in arias as well as recitatives.

Despite the trials which Rosina has to endure, Aine Smith is calmly expressive and moving as the heroine: she projects the pathos of Rosina’s situation without breaking into uneasy fury or volatility, even in the fine scene for her in Act II in which Haydn alternates accompanied recitative and arioso with the support of strings whose music anticipates the intensity of the Seven Last Words, or may be compared with the same form of the slow movement of the String Quartet Op.20 No.5. Capriciousness is rather left to the undependable men. Although Errico receives a generally urgent and lyrical performance from Joseph Doody, there is still the aria for the character in which he regrets giving murderous orders to Villotto, and imagines himself as like the widowed Orpheus, which starts as a lament but becomes, in essence, a rage aria. Thomas Niesser sings warmly but nimbly as Villotto, whose stupidity is often commented upon in the libretto and is made a figure of fun. When he declares his intention of joining the army to escape the awkward situation he finds himself in between Rosina and Errico, the latter is prompted to assume something of the same jauntiness in an upbeat aria whose situation closely foreshadows Figaro’s celebrated ‘Non piu andrai’ with respect to Cherubino.

David Horton is a voluble Ernesto, even sometimes tetchy, with his own stake in the intrigue as the would-be husband of the Baroness, while Robert Forrest demonstrates cooler candour as Masino, Rosina’s brother, who opposes the plan for Villotto to pair off with her. Lara Marie Müller sings with authority as the Baroness, persuasive but not strident; and not at all last and least is Kate Semmens – a stalwart of New Chamber Opera, and by delightful coincidence, a Lisetta last year in Paisiello’s La Frascatana (review here) – on characteristically zippy, spirited form as the Baroness’s resourceful, quick-witted maid.

Animated and buoyant too are the Band of Instruments, led from the harpsichord by Steven Devine. The one-to-a-part ensemble keeps the music brisk and responsive, the strings often capable of tenderness and cordiality, the oboes adding their own quirks, be that sorrow and yearning, or a trumpet-like boldness in Errico’s aforementioned bellicose aria. Above all, it is Haydn’s wit and invention which come across in this opera, a significant area of his output that is given an all too infrequent airing here, compared with his instrumental and choral music.

Curtis Rogers

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