When Mark Morris and I started bandying about ideas for a collaboration, we quickly hit upon Haydn. 2009 is the bicentennial of the composer’s death, and we both felt that a reassessment of his operas was overdue. Mark suggested Il mondo della luna, but I had already scheduled it for the 2009–10 season. I suggested Armida, but Mark rightly felt that it was too large-scale for a company called Gotham Chamber Opera. L’isola disabitata, as Goldilocks said, was just right. Here was an opera with just four characters on a desert island, whose problems are solved in a breezy ninety minutes. Small wonder that this, the tenth of Haydn’s fourteen extant operas, was his favorite.
L’isola disabitata is an intensely inventive work, filled with moments of great playfulness and poignancy. The vocal writing is never less than graceful, with some of the arias notable for their simplicity and others composed as a framework for virtuosic vocal ornamentation. This virtuosity is carried over into the orchestra. The opera opens with a highly dramatic overture that resembles a symphony in miniature; it ends with a veritable concerto grosso, complete with extensive solos for violin, cello, flute, and bassoon, each trying to outdo the others. Oddly, that final ensemble is the only time any of the characters sing together; L’isola has no duets or trios. As befits a desert island, there’s no fat on this opera.
In its handling of recitative, L’isola, composed in 1779, consolidates recent musical innovations and anticipates others. At one moment the orchestra punctuates like Gluck, whose Orfeo ed Euridice premiered in 1762; in the next we are treated to arioso, a hybrid of aria and recitative. In Mozart – whose first mature opera, Idomeneo, arrived in 1781 – the introduction of the orchestra in recitatives was a signal for the audience to sit up and take notice: something important was about to happen. Here, uniquely for Haydn, the recitatives are accompanied by strings throughout, often joined by the winds; the harpsichord, usually the star of recitatives, is noticeably silent. It is a sign that every word is worthy of orchestral underlining and nothing is of secondary importance.
Once again, Gotham Chamber Opera is blessed with a truly extraordinary quartet of singers, and it has been my goal (as it was Haydn’s) to show them off to the fullest. Following 18th-century performance practice, I have swapped another Haydn aria (which he composed for insertion into an opera by Paisiello) for Costanza’s first aria. The aria you will hear tonight is flashier, more varied, and more musically substantive than the original, but with a nearly identical text. It is also more fun, which makes for an altogether more satisfying evening.
And after all, whether one lives on Haydn’s sunny, deserted island, or on our own wintry, somewhat over-inhabited one, satisfaction is nothing to sneeze at.