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LIVE REVIEW: Haydn's 'L'isola disabitata' Staged by American Classical Orchestra

By Steve Nagel s.nagel@classicalite.com on Feb 26, 2016 01:24 PM EST

At a time in which pirates had just graduated from "hotbed issue of the century" to a subject of droll comic relief, librettist Pietro Metastasio had seized upon the convenient device to launch his witty commentary on the subjectivity of innocence and disenchantment: the lighthearted opera (famously set by Haydn), L'isola disabitata or "The Desert Island". In the opera's Tuesday performance at Alice Tully Hall --- staged by period-instrument favorites, the American Classical Orchestra, led by Thomas Crawford on harpsichord --- one hopes that the opera's delightful social commentary, together with its slapstick gags, had fully reached the New York audience.

To many Haydn fans, the most well-known component of L'isola disabitata will be its overture, a stirring prologue to a rapidly unfolding plot, one that falls under what the earliest Romanticists called the "sturm und drang", or "storm and stress". And yet, despite the anticipation, and despite a delightful show of lights cast against the rear panels of the Alice Tully stage, the overture was hardly the most memorable part of the evening. After the "storm und drang" overture, the stately, and comically opposed "court entrance" (to a desert island backdrop) saw the modest outpouring of props, from palm trees to rocks... courtesy of two dutiful sailors. It was at this moment that the similarly juxtaposed character of the plot was set in motion.

The four-character opera is in many ways typical of a Metastasio work, focusing on two relationships, but differs in its thorough exploration of the subjective as well as its complete sense of character polarization -- pitting optimism against pessimism and, to a lesser extent, the complexities of modern art against life's simple pleasures. Much of this depth is crammed into the opening scene. The opera's main characters, Costanza and Silvia (played by Sarah Brailey and Sherezade Panthaki, respectively) are sisters who have been abandoned --- or so they believe --- on an island in the West Indies by Costanza's husband Gernando many years earlier. In their wake, Costanza is left feeling hopeless and despondent, while Silvia (who was only a child when abandoned) has retained her innocence and wonder --- despite all that Costanza has taught her about the ills of humanity… namely, of men.

The return of Gernando, with his friend Enrico, sparks a confrontation amongst the characters, specifically between the "new" and the "old", with Silvia being exposed to the fears and desires of love for the first time, and Costanza having to restore her former happiness by reconciling with the fact that Gernando hadn't actually abandoned her as she'd long believed. He was only, as it turned out, held captive by pirates.

Haydn cleverly brings out the reserved and embittered nature of Costanza in her ariosos as well as in her arias; for the most part, her melodies are stoic, traditional, and inconsolable. Silvia, meanwhile, is given more colorful arias, which are ironically more human. The male arias, Gernando's (Owen McIntosh) and his friend Enrico's (Timothy McDevitt) were similarly balanced, and although McIntosh's melismas felt a little sluggish at times, the experience was redressed with an exuberance that transcended the melodies and more closely reflected the plot itself.

The musical uniqueness of the opera lies in its use of recitativo accompagnato, a device which allows the American Classical Orchestra to fill the role of what an organ or harpsichord would normally have been doing in Haydn's day. Uniquely, this allows for more fluidity within the piece, but also places more demands on the orchestra during crucial scenes. In the case of Costanza having to be convinced that Gernando had not in fact abandoned her, the orchestra was tasked with reflecting the characters' onerous tête-à-tête. Much of the burden in this segment fell on the principle violinist, and although the stop-and-go nature of the flourishing passages seemed to prove especially taxing, the chaotic nature of the scene may have necessitated some panic.

There is little doubt, however, that Soprano Sherezade Panthaki had stolen the show, with her acting as well as her singing. The part itself demands much in the way of range and dynamics, but more in the way of emotional variance. Being the most innocent, Silvia embodies a kind of "wild child" phenomenon; she drifts from unfettered joy to intense compassion, fear, lust, and love, all within the comparatively short operatic timeframe of 90 minutes. In this sense, Panthaki's awe-inspiring performance had infused an operetta-class production with opera-class quality, and her arias likewise seemed to elevate the audience [temporarily] above the comic gags, and to supply the narrative with most of its emotional weight.

The production, overall, had an endearing quaintness about it, the kind that humbly rests beneath the opulent operas we've come to recognize, and indeed does have more in common with the 19th Century operetta (à la the Gilbert & Sullivan variety) than a truly comic opera. Keeping with that not-yet-born tradition, L'Isola Disabitata predictably has a mawkish conclusion. At Haydn's hand, the closing scene is considerably drawn out and yet wholly satisfying all at once. It was made more palatable in a modern setting thanks to the stellar comic timing exhibited on the part of all performers. Although the opera can be seen as a bastion of profound and often complex tragedy, Haydn's L'isola disabitata proves that comedy can be equally as complex.

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TagsHaydn, ACO, American Classical Orchestra, Lincoln Center, Thomas Crawford, Sherezade Panthaki