Haydn: L’isola disabitata

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Opus 111
WORKS: L’isola disabitata
PERFORMER: Katharina Kammerloher, Anke Herrmann, Robert Lee, Furio Zanasi; Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro de Marchi
CATALOGUE NO: OP 30-319
Haydn was especially proud of L’isola disabitata (1779), his only setting of a complete Metastasio libretto. But with its slender and slow-moving plot, on the favourite 18th-century theme of a desert-island rescue, and its limited characterisation, this relatively brief azione teatrale is probably the least viable of his operas in the theatre today. With a nod to Gluck’s Orfeo, the arias are linked by orchestrally accompanied rather than secco recitative, sometimes delicately expressive, but too often – as in the potentially climactic scene before the final reconciliation – non-committal and lacking in cumulative tension. Apart from a couple of charming numbers for Silvia, an innocent child of nature à la Rousseau, the arias, too, tend to be leisurely and dramatically neutral, unfolding almost like symphonic slow movements. It is perhaps no accident that the most dramatic writing comes in the turbulent G minor overture. Haydn being Haydn, though, L’isola disabitata offers many purely musical pleasures, including two gravely eloquent arias for the heroine Costanza and an elaborate final quartet with concertante parts for flute, violin, cello and bassoon to symbolise the four characters.

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This Italian performance, the first on period instruments, is agreeably sung and decently, if sometimes rather brusquely, directed. The Silvia is fragile and fluttery; but Katharina Kammerloher, the Costanza, fields a warm, well-focused mezzo, and both the men sing with pleasingly soft-grained tone. All the singers, though, are eclipsed in character and vocal glamour by their opposite numbers in the recent version conducted by David Golub, who chooses some over-expansive tempi but finds altogether more expressive detail in the score than De Marchi. Arabesque also throws in the tragic cantata Arianna a Naxos, in a noble performance by Susanne Mentzer, whereas Opus 111 confines itself to the opera and a measly 81 minutes’ playing time. Richard Wigmore