WDBX Opera Overnight – Haydn, Donizetti

Sheet music for the opening of The Creation

Sheet music for the opening of The Creation (from sheetmusicplus.com)

We began tonight’s show with a masterpiece, The Creation, by Joseph Haydn.  He was inspired to write an oratorio during his first visit to London in 1791-92, when he was able to attend several performances of Handel’s great oratorios.  He used a libretto that was based on the Biblical books of Genesis and Psalms, and on John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  At one point he had been given a poem by Johann Peter Salomon, but he couldn’t use it because the resulting work would have been 4 hours in length.  But upon his return to Vienna, he gave the poem to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who used it as the basis for the German language Die SchöpfungUpon the work’s completion, Haydn then had the libretto retranslated into English, and the work was published bilingually (a first) in 1800.

Tonight’s recording is by the Gabrielli Consort and Players, with Chetham’s Chamber Choir, under the conduction of Paul McCreesh, with soloists Neil Davies, Sandrine Piau, Mark Padmore, Peter Harvey, and Miah Persson.

It is interesting to take a moment here to note the presence and influence here of Gottfried van Swieten.  Outside of the librettos he wrote for Haydn (in addition to The Creation, van Swieten also wrote librettos for The Seven Last Words of Christ and The Seasons), and the financial and occasional logistical assistance he provided to Haydn, van Swieten figures into the classical timeline in several notable places:

  • van Swieten commissioned the first six symphonies of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who also dedicated a sonata to him in 1781.  Johann Nikolaus Forkel also dedicated his influential biography of Bach to van Swieten.
  • van Swieten met W.A. Mozart when Mozart was 11, and was involved with the planning of an opera that was never performed.  Mozart and van Swieten met again in 1781 – with van Swieten and other Viennese dignitaries in the audience, Mozart performed extracts from his opera Ideomeneo.  This helped lead to Mozart receiving the commission to write The Abduction from the Seraglio, his first great compositional success.
  • By 1782, Mozart was visiting van Swieten at his home, using the opportunity to transcribe van Swieten’s collection of Bach and Handel manuscripts that van Swieten had acquired while in diplomatic service in Berlin.  Performances were also held, in the presence of others; Mozart mentions the visits in a 1782 letter to his father Leopold:

“I go every Sunday at twelve o’clock to the Baron van Swieten, where nothing is played but Handel and Bach. I am collecting at the moment the fugues of Bach–not only of Sebastian, but also of Emanuel and Friedemann

  • This is seen as being a major influence on Mozart’s compositional style.  Mozart would eventually demonstrate those influences in the composition of his C Minor Mass.
  • van Swieten commissioned Mozart to make arrangements of several works of Handel.  This includes Mozart’s well-known arrangement of Messiah.  While these arrangements are not performed anymore, they probably played a major role in keeping Handel’s music in the realm of public awareness.
  • After Mozart’s death in 1791, van Swieten arranged for the funeral, and then arranged for the benefit performance of the unfinished Requiem Mass.  The concert brought in 300 ducats, which was then a considerable sum.  This benefit also served as a motivator for Mozart’s widow Constanze to arrange for the completion of the work.  He also arranged for the education of Mozart’s son Karl.
  • In 1776, van Swieten offered encouragement to a 43 year old Joseph Haydn, whose works were not being received well critically.  Haydn was appreciative, and states as much in 1776 writings.
  • After the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, during Haydn’s visit to London, some of the Handel concerts that Haydn attended (and may have participated in) may have been funded in part by the Gesellschaft der Associierten, a group of music lovers founded in part by van Swieten.  When Haydn began writing concertos, using van Swieten’s librettos, van Swieten offered Haydn compositional suggestions that the composer accepted in a few instances.  Gesellschaft der Associierten also funded the premieres of the three oratorios that were inspired by the time in London.
  • Just as with Mozart 12 years earlier, the young Beethoven also spent time in van Swieten’s home, performing Bach fugues for van Swieten and the Gesellschaft group.  This relationship is actually captured in a letter from van Swieten to Beethoven that has survived (as have many of Beethoven’s papers).  Also like Mozart, Beethoven came to consider Bach as a primary influence.
Illustration of Act III of Donizetti's Dom Séb...

Illustration of Act III of Donizetti's Dom Sébastien as presented in the original production at the Paris Opera's Salle Le Peletier on 13 November 1843. Engraving published in L'Illustration. The Grand Inquisitor orders the arrest of Dom Sébastien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second work of the evening is the last work by Gaetano Donizetti, Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal.  The libretto was written by Eugène Scribe, and was based on a 1838 play by Paul Foucher that was a historical fiction about King Sebastian of Portugal, and his ill-fated military expedition to Morocco, in which he led 17,000 men against a 50,000 Turkish army.  His army was routed, and he was last seen riding headlong into battle, his remains never to be found.   Donizetti took the source material and turned it into a heavily fictionalized 5 act French Grand Opera.  The title role was written for Gilbert Duprez, the tenor who developed the technique that allowed tenors to sing high-C “from the chest” (i.e. not with a falsetto-like voice).  The opera premiered on November 13, 1843 at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, but Donizetti was unable to particpate, as he had begun to display the effects of syphilis and associated mental issues that would result in his being institutionalized in 1845, and his death in 1848.

The Salle Le Peletier during the cloister scen...

The Salle Le Peletier during the cloister scene of Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dom Sébastien a is a pretty fair representation of what the French grand opera tradition was like.  French grand opera developed from the stylistic standards established by composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau, but also included more contemporary aspects.  It was big on spectacle, and often featured significant ballet elements (in keeping with a tradition established by Lully and Rameau) in the opera’s Act 2, a tradition about which the French were rather picky.  Notably, Wagner attempted to restage Tannhäuser in the grand opera mode in 1861, but his rewrite had to be withdrawn after 3 performances – not because there wasn’t a ballet (there was), but because the ballet was placed in Act 1. Donizetti wrote two successful works in the grand opera mode, Dom Sébastien and La Favorite, but not many works in the grand opera sub-genre are performed today, owing to the length, the costs and logistics involved in the production, and the fact that they often require multiple top-level talents.  In fact, while grand operas are recorded more often than they are performed (cost is not as prohibitive when recording), this is the first such recording that I’ve been able to acquire.

Drawing of Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896), French ...

Drawing of Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896), French tenor, the originator of the role of Dom Sébastien. He revolutionized opera by developing a technique that allowed a tenor to sing high C "from the chest", without going into falsetto. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording  is a 2007 disc that features Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role (with all the resulting high-Cs, especially in Seul sur la terre, the aria that closes Act 2), along with Vesselina Kasarova, Alastair Miles, Simon Keenlyside, Carmelo Corrado Caruso, Andrew Slater, and Lee Hickenbottom.  It was recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in September of 2005, and the recording was nominated for the 2008 Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

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