Pinchgut – L’anima del filosofo: Orpheus & Eurydice

Earlier in the month (it was “Tonight” when I first wrote this sentence) to Pinchgut’s annual production: this year, as per the title, straying the furthest forward in time yet (or possibly equal with Idomeneo – depends how you measure time, really) with Haydn’s final, unperformed, possible incomplete, opera. Wikipedia presently deals with it rather tersely:

L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice), Hob. 28/13, is an opera in Italian in four acts by Joseph Haydn, the last he ever wrote. The libretto, by Carlo Francesco Badini, is based on the myth of Orpheus and Euridice as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Composed in 1791, the opera was never performed during Haydn’s lifetime.

After his patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had died in 1790, Haydn travelled to London where he received a commission to write several symphonies. The impresario John Gallini also offered him a contract to write an opera for the King’s Theatre but due to a dispute between King George III and the Prince of Wales he was refused permission to stage it. As a result, the score was never completed and some music appears to be missing.

The last opera Haydn wrote for Esterhazy was Armide, which was put on in 1783, so you can see that there is a fair argument for L’anima del filosofo having been obsolete even before it was not performed. It’s a bit of a stylistic hybrid – I don’t think Haydn had quite found his Creation mojo yet but he had abandoned some of his earlier more picturesque operatic style.

Of course that last remark comes with the enormous condescension of hindsight. It’s still quite a lot of music by Haydn – Viennese music written for the London market by a master. The quality is high. The one thing I would say is that extroverted moments succeed more than the relatively few ventures into pathos or the picturesque. There seemed to be rather a lot of Andantino or at least moderato in the first half, though I think that was partly a call for a “cool” enlightened style by Anthony Walker, the conductor.

It’s easy to take for granted by now the high standard of Pinchgut performances, particularly of the orchestra (though maybe not entirely consistently: I’m still not really satisfied with the oboes, and as a matter of realisation some of the harp/fortepiano continuo combinations seemed a bit like a chip buttie – too much of the same good thing), and this production was no exception. Probably in anticiptation of the English taste for oratorio, and perhaps with knowledge of the quality of choristers available in a big city, Haydn gave a lot of work to the chorus and Cantillation lived up to this. I’m afraid Andrew Goodwin is the sort of Mozartean tenor I find it difficult to warm to, even though I understand admirers of that type consider him to be a gook example of his kind. Elena Xanthoudakis was a wilder and more vivid presence as Euridice in the first half and a sybil in the second. Derek Welton as Euridice’s father, Creonte, sang well though he didn’t really seem old enough. The stage production was adequate, though it isn’t really the point of Pinchgut performances for me, so long as it does not detract. I quite liked the sexy young actors who did physical theatre as a kind of commentary on the action, though at the point where they actually seemed to start speaking to each other I felt coarse acting was just around the corner.

Look, I enjoyed it. I was exceedingly diverted by it and at times exhilarated by it, but I’m not sure if I was ever really moved in a substantive sense. I’m not in a position to say how much that is a reaction to the work and how much to the performance, though I am inclined to put any qualifications down to the former rather than the latter. I went twice (to the first and second nights) and had to stay my hand not to reach out at least for the advertised $30 restricted view seats for a third time on the last night, assuming such tickets had still been available. I’m rather regretting my moderation in that regard.

It follows that I can’t quite match some other commentators’ panegyrics, including this one by Carolyn McDowell. However, she is right about the quite distinctive and loyal audience which Pinchgut has attracted:

a seemingly very savvy musical audience that makes up the Pinchgut Opera’s growing data base.

They come from all walks of life and backgrounds too. They are not posh, but rather without pretension. They are people who admire and applaud quality when they see and experience it. As well they continue to turn up year after year.

I don’t mean to bask in any portion of such praise which is mine, because the audience is above all a credit to Pinchgut’s founders and promoters.

Some of that promotion is by means of web- and email- narration of the build-up to each year’s performances. It is salutary to realise just how much goes into them, the talents gathered (even if I was surprised to read, looking back, that the final ensemble was not settled until about October) and the pains taken. And that is just for one opera. Think of what Opera Australia must be doing every year for 12 or 14 between two cities.

In the recent scrapping over government arts funding, Richard Mills was derided in the Westbury/Eltham camp as a reactionary and elitist harrumpher, but for their part I think they are underestimating the level of execution required for opera and which Mills, for one, took to be self-evident. This is just one thing which makes their nostra for, eg, the casualisation of orchestras and defunding of opera as a means of spreading the government arts dollar in the direction of their preferred forms so wide of the mark.

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