It is not unusual on this blog for us to be at variance with other critics, and indeed other members of the audience. Last night at the Usher Hall was for me one of those nights. While the playing was generally good (although there were problems which I'll return to) I wasn't blown away by it or the singing, or convinced that Haydn as an opera composer has been undeservedly neglected. However there were many fellow members of the audience who clearly thought otherwise (I had one of those nights when I was often baffled by the applause afforded to singers after their arias).
Let us take the positives first. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra played with real verve. If not quite in the same league as Les Talons Lyriques (for my money the most exciting such band currently around and why Mills doesn't get them for a gig I do not know), under Rene Jacobs's direction they kept things moving along nicely.
In keeping with other recent concert operas there was some attempt at movement on the part of the singers – they entered and exited from a variety of doors around the stage, and attempted with the odd costume change and gesture to give a bit of life to the drama. It actually should be noted that this was an opera which you could have done anything with as the libretto is more than usually incoherent for a piece from this period.
The merits of the singers are more difficult to assess on the simple grounds that from where I was sitting in the Upper Circle Jacobs made a mess of balancing his forces. Pretty uniformly from beginning to end the band were allowed to play too loudly drowning the singers many of whose voices were quite light for the space. To my ear there were also too many moments of imprecision where Jacobs failed to keep singers and band properly together. Of the singers, when I could hear them properly, I enjoyed Stephane Degout's (Orlando) first aria which he projected more successfully over the orchestral accompaniment than anyone else had done to that point, and was commendably in harmony with the band. Sunhae Im's Erilla was nicely characterised but struggled from my position to get across the orchestra. Among the others I didn't care for Sine Bundgaard's Angelica whose voice was breathy and sounded often insecure and sometimes wayward, or Victor Torres's Pasquale, whose relations with the orchestra in his first patter aria were dangerously loose. Otherwise the singing, for me, was serviceable rather than outstanding.
The same can be applied to the score. There's some pleasant music here, but one can hear quite clearly (at least on the basis of this score and performance) why Mozart and Handel have remained in the repertoire and Haydn has not. Both of those composers command a greater depth of emotion and a greater range of musical expression in their stage works than Haydn manages. I also thought that the recitative could have been fairly brutally trimmed without any great loss. The plot is so thin and confused that the recitative actually does little to make things clear, and is (or at least was in this performance) of little musical interest.
Overall, it was interesting to hear this once, but I wouldn't rush out to buy a CD of it, and I wouldn't be in a particular hurry to hear this group of performers again either. Overall this was a pleasant enough evening in the concert hall, but it was for me some way from being an outstanding one.