The Operas of Haydn

THAT FRANZ JOSEPH Haydn is one of our greatest composers is doubted by no one today. Over the past forty years, such scholars as Karl Geiringer, Jens Peter Larsen, and H. C. Robbins Landon have made us vividly aware of the richness, variety, and sheer volume of Haydn’s creative output. Thanks to their scrupulously prepared editions and enlightened critical commentary, Haydn has at last been rescued from the cozy “Papa Haydn” stereotype that had dogged him ever since the time of Schumann and Mendelssohn. The record companies have been quick to capitalize on the opportunity thus afforded. We now have not only authoritative and relatively cheap scores of Haydn’s 106 symphonies, sixty-eight string quartets, sixtytwo keyboard sonatas, and forty-three trios for violin, cello, and keyboard, but also excellent recordings of almost all of these works, and of many of his masses, cantatas, divertimentos, and songs. The one important area that has, until very recently, been almost totally neglected is Haydn’s operas. Indeed, most people never think of Haydn as an opera composer at all.

Yet he certainly thought of himself as one, and so did his contemporaries. His friend Georg August Griesinger tells us in his 1810 biography of the composer that Haydn was advised, by Gluck, among others, to travel to Italy to further his operatic career, and that “Haydn sometimes said that instead of the many quartets, sonatas, and symphonies, he should have written more vocal music.”In 1776, when he was asked to contribute an autobiographical sketch to an Austrian literary magazine, Haydn proudly singled out three of his operas (along with two other vocal works) as the “compositions of mine [that] have received the most approbation.” Though he referred to works “in the chambermusical style,” he made no mention of his symphonies, sonatas, or other instrumental works. And in 1781, reporting to his Viennese publisher the success recently achieved in Paris by his vocal works, Haydn wrote: “But I wasn’t at all surprised, for they haven’t heard anything yet. If they could only hear my little opera L’isola disabitata and my most recent opera La fideltà premiata: I guarantee that such work has not yet been heard in Paris and perhaps just as little in Vienna.”

Since the very beginning of his career, in fact, Haydn had been an opera composer. His first commission came in 1751 or 1752, when he was about twenty, from Joseph Felix von Kurz-Bernardon, the leader of a famous comedy troupe, who hired Haydn to write the music for his play Der krumme Teufel (The Crooked Devil). The score has unfortunately not survived, but we know that the work had a brief success, and Haydn probably wrote other operas for the troupe during the 1750s. In 1761, Haydn entered the service of the Esterhazys, Hungary’s most prominent noble family, as vice-Kapellmeister. During the next few years he wrote several operas for Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, who had a great interest in the theater. The only one of these early works that has survived is the 1762 pastoral drama Acide, based on the Acis and Galatea story. Meanwhile, Prince Nicolaus was enlarging one of his hunting lodges into the elaborate palace of Eszterhaza, built to rival Versailles. His ambitious plans included the construction of a conventional theater and a marionette theater, for both of which Haydn was to compose operas in the years that followed. Until Prince Nicolaus’s death, in 1790, a good share of Haydn’s time was spent not only in composing operas but also in reworking and conducting those of other composers. Under Haydn’s directorship, Eszterháza, despite its rural location, southeast of Vienna, became one of the important international centers for the performance of Italian opera.

Haydn’s directorial work for the Esterházys was painstakingly documented by Dénes Bartha and László Somfai in Haydn als Opernkapellmeister (1960); a shortened and updated English version, by Bartha, is contained in the collection New Looks at Italian Opera (1968), edited by William W. Austin. But astonishingly little has been written about Haydn’s own operas. Full scores of almost all the surviving ones have now been published, but their appearance has not produced the critical analysis and commentary one would expect. The standard biographies of Haydn all devote a few dutiful pages to his operas, but aside from Helmut Wirth’s virtually inaccessible Haydn als Dramatiker (1940) and a scattering of journal and festschrift articles in German and English, there are only Robbins Landon’s chapter in the 1973 Age of Enlightenment volume of the New Oxford History of Music and his more extensive comments in his five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works (1976-1980). It is especially surprising that such excellent books as Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style (1971) and Sonata Forms (1980), and Leonard G. Ratner’s Classic Music (1980), which have a good deal to say about the crucial role of opera in the formation of the classical style, and which discuss in detail the operas not only of Gluck and Mozart but also of such relatively obscure composers as Niccolo Jommelli and Carl Friedrich Graun, say not a word about the operas of Haydn, the first great classical master.

This time, it is the record companies that have led the way. Before the late 1970s, there were only a few, quite inadequate. recordings of Haydn operas; then Philips inaugurated a series conducted by Antal Dorati, whose complete Haydn symphonies for London Records a decade earlier had done so much to familiarize us with Haydn’s development as a symphonist. Unfortunately, the opera series has now been canceled, with only eight of Haydn’s fifteen surviving operas recorded: L’infideltà delusa,, 1773 (Philips 6769 061); L’incontro improvviso, 1775 (Philips 6769 040); Il mondo della luna, 1777 (Philips 6769 003); La vera costanza, 1778 (Philips 6703 077); L’isola disabitata, 1779 (Philips 6700 119); La fideltà premiata, 1780 (Philips 6707 028); Orlando paladino, 1782 (Philips 6707 029); and Armida, 1783 (Philips 6769 021). Worse still, only three of these—L’infideltd delusa, L’incontro improvviso, and Armida—are still in Philips’s American catalogue. The others, however, may be obtained from André Perrault International, 73 East Allen Street, Winooski, Vermont 05404. On all eight recordings, the playing of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra is crisp and buoyant, and the casts include such first-rate singers as Frederica von Stade, Jessye Norman, and Edith Mathis. Less significant is the series on Hungaroton, which so far comprises three operas: Lo speziale, 1768 (Hungaroton 11 926/27); L’infideltà delusa (Hungaroton 11 832/34); and La fideltà premiata (Hungaroton 11 854/57). The last two do not measure up to the Dorati versions; Lo speziale, an interesting early work, may be ordered from Qualiton Imports, Ltd., 39-28 Crescent Street, Long Island City, New York 11101.

WHY HAS SO little critical attention been paid to a sizable body of work by a great composer in a major genre? The last trace of the nineteenth century’s trivializing view of Haydn is the myth that his talents were not suited to dramatic composition and that his operas, though they contain some fine music, are an embarrassing failure. As we saw, neither he nor his contemporaries thought this, and it is not at all borne out by the recordings cited above. Yet the myth has proved extraordinarily tenacious.

One frequent, though quite unfair, complaint is that Haydn’s mature operas are exceptionally long. In Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Robbins Landon, who probably knows more about Haydn than anyone else in the world, applauds the “concentration” of a couple of the early operas, but laments the “profusion” that set in with L’incontro improvviso, which he refers to as a work of “fantastic length” that, if performed uncut, “would last nearly as long as a major Wagner opera.” Yet in the Dorati recording, which contains all of the music and omits only a few pages of recitative, the opera takes about two and a half hours—as against four hours or more for most of Wagner’s mature works. Similarly, Robbins Landon writes of Il mondo della luna: “Like almost everything Haydn composed for the stage at this period, it is far too long (uncut, it would run to about three hours and twenty minutes).” Yet the Dorati recording, which, again, contains all of the music and takes only one two-page cut in the recitative, actually runs to about two hours and forty-five minutes. Colin Davis’s excellent recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, on the other hand, runs to just over three hours—yet nobody ever accused Mozart of being undramatically profuse or Così of being a work of fantastic or Wagnerian length.

An apparently more plausible complaint is that Haydn almost always had poor librettos to work with. Indeed, the titles of most of his operas are enough to put off many listeners: L’infideltà delusa (Infidelity Confounded), La fideltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded), and La vera costanza (True Constancy) sound drearily moralistic; Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon) and L’isola disabitata (The Uninhabited Island) invoke the eighteenth century’s proto-sciencefiction fascination with strange and alien realms; Armida and Orlando paladino call to mind Tasso and Ariosto, and seem a musty throwback to the stylized world of Baroque opera. Even if we push our way past the titles, and read the librettos, they do seem an unpromising lot, set in improbable circumstances and crowded with unrealistic characters.

But can one ever predict, just from reading a libretto, whether or not a musical genius can turn it into a good opera? If we did not know the works in question, could any of us really guess that great operas could be composed to the librettos of The Coronation of Poppea or The Magic Flute or Tristan und Isolde? Surely, no one would have predicted, before the fact of Balanchine’s magnificent creations, that great ballets could be made to Tchaikovsky’s seldomheard Second Piano Concerto, or Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, or Fauré’s incidental music to Pelleas et Mélisande. With ballet, the point is obvious: the dramatic interest lies in the dance, and in what the dance can make of the music. With opera, the corresponding point, though less obvious, is no less valid: the dramatic interest lies in the music, and in what the music can make of the text.

THE TRUTH IS that Haydn came into his own as an opera composer with L’incontro improvviso (The Unforeseen Encounter), in 1775—just the time in his career that Robbins Landon and others begin to deplore the length and improbability of his operas. The 1768 Lo speziale (The Apothecary) has been much praised for its “realism,” and it does indeed deal with believable human beings and have a plot that is both tricky and well made. But the music is mostly quite boring and conventional. The first of the operas so far recorded in which we hear Haydn’s authentic voice is the 1773 L’infideltà delusa, which, like Lo speziale, concerns ordinary people and involves a false notary and a faked marriage contract. But right from the splendid little overture, we are in a world far different from that of Lo speziale. The superb, and justly famous, opening quintet, in which we are introduced to all the characters, is a warm and expansive ensemble that sets the tone for the whole work. In the operas that followed, as the plots grew more improbable, Haydn’s music grew more inventive and exploratory, the orchestration richer, the vocal writing more elaborate, the finales more dazzling. Finally, the titles prove highly misleading. For Il mondo della luna, he created music of sweet and serene enchantment that forces us to share the eighteenth-century fantasy of a lunar utopia even as we laugh at the intrigues by which the astrologer Ecclitico and his friends contrive to win away the daughters and maid of the credulous old man Buonafede. In La vera costanza, Haydn took the totally improbable situation of the fishermaiden Rosina, who has somehow got herself secretly married to Count Errico, and brilliantly exploited the gap between the meaningless intrigue that seethes around her and her complex and varied emotions as she stands at the center of it all, affected yet unshaken. Orlando paladino turns out to be a hilarious spoof on its madly energetic hero, a wild farce in which Haydn even parodied Gluck in a mock-solemn aria given to Charon, boatman of the Styx.

When Haydn scholars discuss his operas—and almost no one else ever does discuss them—they rather nervously assure us that we must not expect them to be like Mozart’s, by which they mean that we must not expect realistic situations and characters, psychological penetration, or swift-moving dramatic action. But does Mozart consistently give us these things? In The Marriage of Figaro, the opera most often invoked in such discussions, he certainly does. But when one recalls the ending of Don Giovanni, or the donnee of Così fan tutte, or virtually the whole of The Magic Flute, one is forced to say no. The reason we love Mozart’s operas is not that they conform to those standards of psychological realism and dramatic effectiveness that critics so often appeal to but never formulate precisely. Such standards are in fact loosely derived from nineteenthcentury plays and novels, and are inappropriate to both Haydn and Mozart.

In Haydn’s operas, we are constantly encountering improbable characters placed in unlikely situations; yet the music explores the emotions of the characters at great length, and forces us to take both characters and emotions very seriously—even as we laugh at the improbabilities. Leisurely and expansive, yet not at all profuse in a derogatory sense, Haydn’s operas revel in the opportunities that their librettos provide for creating what the literary critic Kenneth Burke once called “perspectives through incongruity.” This should come as no surprise to us, for the eighteenth century was very fond of creating such perspectives. At just about the time Haydn was maturing as an opera composer, Dr. Johnson praised Pope’s Rape of the Lock for exhibiting “in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.” It was the eighteenth century’s interest in this sort of ironic juxtaposition that caused its writers to imagine voyages to the moon or to the kingdom of Lilliput, or letters sent back by a Persian or a Chinese traveler to his countrymen from a France or an England in which he found everything startlingly new and strange, yet also oddly familiar. The eighteenth century was, we recall, the great age of satire.

Haydn’s interest in placing his characters and their actions in a new and unexpected light often led him to play rather mischievously with the operatic conventions of his time. Students of eighteenthcentury opera, perhaps taking these conventions a little too solemnly, have sometimes missed this point. Consider, for example, a moment in L’incontro improvviso that has often been sternly criticized.

The plot of the opera concerns two lovers, Ali and Rezia, who eloped, only to have their ship captured by pirates, who separated them. Ali has just arrived penniless in Cairo, having spent two miserable years searching for Rezia. Unknown to him, she is there too, the favorite slave of the Sultan. The climax of the opera will obviously be their reunion, their “unforeseen encounter.” Yet when Haydn arrives at this point, he does not give us the grand and rapturous duet we expect. Instead, the lovers genially exchange anecdotes in recitative, and then Rezia illustrates her story of travail by singing a little song that the pirate captain sang to her and her two confidantes as he smoked his pipe, enjoining them to drown their sorrows in tobacco! What could be more ineptly anticlimactic?

Taken in its full dramatic and musical context, however, this moment is one of Haydn’s characteristic masterstrokes. Before we meet either Ali or Rezia, we are introduced to the characters of the opera’s subplot, Ali’s servant, Osmin, and a fraudulent dervish who teaches him how to beg and shares with him the profits of the successful Egyptian con artist. Haydn’s music vividly communicates the enormous pleasure to be had from the abundant stores of food, drink, and—nota bene!—tobacco accumulated by the supposedly needy beggars. By the time Rezia comes on the scene, she has already spotted Ali, and her first aria is devoted not to the pain of their enforced separation but rather to the power of love to restore contentment. Soon she and her confidantes, Balkis and Dardane, sing a long and beautiful trio, languorous and very richly scored, with the orchestra’s two oboists playing English horns, in celebration of hope and good fortune. Their pleasure, we feel, is a higher version of that felt by Osmin, the dervish, and their cohorts: the music constantly enforces the relation between the two plots. Therefore, though Ali, when he first appears, does sing of his pain and frustration, both the music and the text have so firmly stressed pleasure and enjoyment that we know his distress will soon be relieved. There is no suspense involved when the lovers do finally meet, in Act II, and Rezia’s little song is just what the moment calls for, because it maintains the generalized stress on pleasure that has suffused the work, keeping alive the relation between the two plots, even down to the allusion to tobacco—a relation that would have been disrupted by too intense a concentration on the drama of their reunion.

If Haydn had cared to use it, he already had at his disposal L. H. Dancourt’s libretto for Gluck’s version of the same story, his 1764 opera La recontre imprévue. Dancourt and Gluck do give Ali and Rezia a big duet when they are reunited, and the story about the pirate captain is relegated to recitative, and is told by Balkis, not Rezia. But Haydn’s libretto was specially prepared for him by Carl Friberth, a prominent member of the Eszterháza company who sang the role of Ali. Although we know nothing about Haydn’s role in the preparation of the librettos he set, Friberth was a friend with whom he often worked closely, and it surely makes sense to assume that Haydn could have had a duet if he had wanted one, but saw that the libretto as reworked by Friberth better suited his purposes.

One is even tempted to imagine that Haydn had a hand in shaping this and others of his librettos, since his instrumental works, as well as his operas, are full of surprises like Rezia’s little song. I am thinking mainly not of obvious instrumental effects, like the one that gives the “Surprise Symphony” its English nickname, or the loud, flatulent bassoon note near the end of the serene slow movement of Symphony No. 93, but rather of the abrupt changes of key, the sudden pauses, the unexpected extensions and distortions of phrase, the momentarily disconcerting harmonic alterations that occur everywhere in his symphonies, quartets, and other instrumental works. Unlike the Baroque music that precedes it and the Romantic music that follows it, classical music is strongly characterized by the swift and effortless alternation and juxtaposition, or even fusion and interpenetration, of seeming opposites, by a surprising mix of spaciousness and abruptness, by a pervasive sense of wit and irony. It is an art saturated with theatricality, and the works that Haydn composed for Prince Nicolaus’s two operatic theaters played a vital role in its formation and development.

THERE ARE STILL a great many questions about Haydn’s operas that remain unanswered. What is his real relation to Mozart and to Gluck? Why, in his last two operas, did Haydn turn away from the sort of mixed or semi-comic opera with which he had had such success, and revert to the older opera seria? Bartha and Somfai have shown that the operatic repertory at Eszterháza was dominated by mixed operas until about 1781, but that after that date Haydn more frequently performed serious, even tragic, works. In 1783, he wrote Armida, his last opera for Eszterháza, which centers on the hero Rinaldo’s conflict between love and duty, and in 1791, while in London, he wrote L’anima del filosofo (The Soul of the Philosopher), which is based on the Orpheus story but uses the traditional tragic ending, which both Monteverdi and Gluck had rejected. It is most regrettable that the Philips series was canceled before Dorati had a go at L’anima del filosofo. One would also like a chance to get acquainted with Haydn’s other surviving operas: the 1762 Acide; the 1766 La canterina (The Songstress), an intermezzo intended to be played between the acts of an opera seria; the 1769 Le pescatrici (The Fishermaidens); and two marionette operas, the 1773 Philemon und Baucis and Die Feuerbrunst (The Conflagration), which dates from between 1775 and 1778. From the last two we would learn how (or whether) Haydn changed his style when he set a German text.

But these and other pressing questions must wait until Haydn’s operas are better known. One hopes that day will not be long in coming, for the best of Haydn’s operas are not only enchanting works in themselves, far better than their sparse and lukewarm press would lead one to believe, but are also essential to an understanding of his nature and development as a composer, to the development of the classical style, and to the history of eighteenth-century opera. So far, we have barely scratched the surface.