Vocalist - Tenor
Musical Charmer Comes Briefly Out of Oblivion
NEW YORK -- It happens with predictable regularity. Every now and then someone will notice that Haydn wrote a lot of operas (the New Grove Dictionary lists 26 stage works in various shapes and forms), and decide that they are long overdue for reassessment. Suddenly there is a flurry of activity -- all the major scores were recorded by Philips with luxurious casts in the 1970s, and productions followed -- but the operas never take hold. The verdict always seems to be the same: the music is glorious but untheatrical, never getting under the skin of the characters and bringing them to life in ways that Haydn's younger colleague, Mozart, could do so magically in his operas.

Since this year marks the bicentennial of Haydn's death, it's apparently time to take another look at his operas and try again. Neal Goren, artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, thinks so, and his plucky group has begun modestly with "L'Isola Disabitata," which received the first of five performances Feb. 18 at John Jay College's Lynch Theater.

Composed in 1779, "L'Isola Disabitata" lasts under 90 minutes and is described as an "azione teatrale" (a term invented by the work's librettist, Pietro Metastasio, for a short work with an unassuming plot that requires a simple staging). After her husband Gernando was abducted and enslaved by pirates, Costanza, with her younger sister Silvia, has spent more than a dozen years living alone on an island. Unfortunately Costanza thinks that Gernando abandoned her intentionally, so when he turns up with his friend Enrico there are numerous emotional problems to sort out before the two happy couples can board Gernando's tiny row boat, paddle back to civilization, and live happily ever after.

Admittedly there is not a great deal of dramatic and psychological potential here, although the text (written in 1752) attracted a number of composers before Haydn decided to set it as a name-day homage to his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Needless to say, the score is perfectly lovely from first note to last, a series of lovingly crafted arias notable for their formal restraint, lack of vocal display, and gorgeous instrumental solos that weave around the voice. Even the recitatives, fully accompanied throughout, are expressively developed, flow seamlessly into the arias, and always lend support to the characters' predicaments. As in all his operas, the overall tone is rather abstract, but every musical idea is taken from the composer's top drawer and ingeniously developed.

Gotham Chamber Opera scored something of a coup by securing the services of Mark Morris to stage the piece, and perhaps it was the choreographer's name that helped attract such a glamorous audience to the opening performance. This project might also indicate Morris's future interest in pursuing opera direction with works that do not contain a major dance element or require the services of his own dance company. In any case the comings and goings of the four characters have been managed deftly enough, although Morris' directorial ideas too often strike the wrong tone, encouraging the cast to joke things up with double takes, mugging and poking fun at a simple plot that Haydn took quite seriously.

It all leads to the final quartet, when choreography takes over as the singers merrily gesture and prance inanely over the large, ungainly rock that Allen Moyer has designed as a basic set. By then one can't help but wonder how such a bleak environment could possibly support life -- after all, Costanza and Silvia have been stranded on this barren stone for 13 years -- not to mention why we are meant to care for the four irritating people who live on it.

If a bit of a trial to look at, the production has strong musical values thanks to conductor Goren's alert direction. The Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra contains some exceptional first desk players who give ravishing accounts of the many solo obbligato passages that decorate the major arias. As Costanza and Silvia, sopranos Takesha Meshé Kizart and Valerie Ogbonnaya are perfectly contrasted, the one boasting an agile lyric voice with dramatic overtones and the other a bright soubrette with a perky charm that never goes over the top. As Gernando, Vale Rideout shapes the tenor arias with charm and grace, while Tom Corbeil's grainy baritone finds much character and quiet humor in Enrico's music. It is always a treat to encounter a Haydn opera, but I suspect that "L'Isola Disabitata" is fated to be reshelved until curiosity in this great composer's chronically neglected operas stirs once again.

Peter G. Davis, Musical America
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