As a composer of opera in the second half of the eighteenth century, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) still languishes far too much in the shadow of his younger Austrian contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1765-1791). Whilst the latter’s masterpieces in the genre set the bar almost impossibly high, Haydn’s attempts remain estimable in matching attractive, idiomatic music to the constantly shifting situations of the dramas. Indeed, if the twists and turns of the plot of The Marriage of Figaro are an enthralling challenge to keep up with – particularly in its Act Two finale, and throughout Act Four – that is almost straightforward by comparison with the endless reshuffling of love interests and identities, sometimes seemingly on a whim, in such a work as Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata and L’infedeltà delusa.
La vera costanza is relatively more straightforward than that, although it still calls forth from Haydn an impressively symphonic finale in Act Two.This is surely the equal of anything by Mozart up to the point of Idomeneo, and taking into account the fact that the latter is a serious drama whereas Haydn’s work is a comedy – if, admittedly, ‘sentimental’ in some elements perhaps, in the eighteenth century sense of that term. This version by New Chamber Opera also preserved its buffa elements in employing a witty translation by Gilly French and Murray Hipkin as ‘High Fidelity’, originally presented some years ago by Bampton Classical Opera.
New Chamber Opera also drew upon previous experience of mounting Haydn’s comedies with performances of Lo Speziale and Il mondo della luna in recent years, the latter also featuring amorous intrigues in an improbable setting. Michael Burden’s production in the ante-chapel of New College in the University of Oxford, places La vera costanza in the context of the fisherman Masino’s wharf-side café, such as might be encountered in an English seaside town or village to provide comparatively more local colour, but the character types remained recognisably intact in the convincing and astute performances by the cast of young students.
The fisher girl Rosina is the figure whose true constancy gives rise to the opera’s title and which runs as a steady point throughout the plot, around which the other characters hatch their schemes and ploys as they seek to satisfy their own ends. In the principal role Aine Smith was calmly confident, projecting the heroine’s vulnerable innocence winningly, and rightly not protesting her virtue too much. Count Errico had married, but later abandoned, Rosina; now that he finds himself washed ashore in her place of residence, he falls in love with her again, even though his aunt, the Baroness Irene, desires that he look elsewhere for a spouse. Laura Coppinger was suitably haughty and uncompromising in that role, a typical instance of the meddling and indomitable older female relative, whilst Richard Douglas interpreted Errico with considerable tenderness and warmth, perhaps downplaying the suggestion of the character’s previous dishonourable behaviour.
Filippo Turkheimer sang and acted the part of Villotto, the vain fop who also pursues Rosina, with raffish good humour, bringing out a nature that is essentially feckless rather than viciously cunning. Dominic Spencer Jolly was a solicitous Masino, the café owner, and in this production turned into the brother of Rosina instead of her father, expressing keen anxiety and concern for her. James Gant’s Ernesto was diffident and genial, and if he could have imparted more ardour to the performance, his cooler affection for Irene did at least serve as a point of contrast than the more hot-headed pursuit of Rosina by the other two men, as well as the soubrettish flirtations of Maryam Wocial as Lisetta, who makes advances to Masino.
Joseph Beesley directed the company’s instrumental ensemble in a performance of enthusiastic vigour, complementing the wit and bubbling pace of the narrative. Dynamic and textural contrast was necessarily restrained with one performer to a part, but they came together well in the extended scenes of more symphonic grandeur, and Toby Stanford’s support on the harpsichord drove the recitatives with ideal tension and speed so as to advance the opera’s natural comic momentum rather than hold it up. All round, a commendable effort.
New Chamber Opera’s next performance is Baldassare Galuppi: La Diavolessa (That She Devil). This performance is part of their 18th Century Season and will take place at The Warden’s Garden, New College from 1st-11th July. More details are available here.