The current run of Haydn's L'isola disabitata [The desert island] at the Linbury Studio Theatre represents the first performances of this delightful opera at the Royal Opera House.
The piece, a masterly chamber opera, is an excellent choice for performers in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and – in theory – also for the relatively small Linbury venue. (However, a word of warning to audiences: people with long legs should opt for the excellent standing places, as the seats squashed between the narrowly-placed rows can cause considerable discomfort.)
Metastasio's libretto for the opera is simple and optimistic. It is not surprising that shortly after Metastasio wrote the text for composer Giuseppe Bonno (in 1754), several other composers created their own versions. Haydn's setting, his tenth opera written for the Eszterházy court, was the fourteenth variation on this Metastasio theme and it was first performed in 1779.
There are four characters in this simple but heart warming plot. Costanza and her baby sister were left alone on a deserted island, after her husband Gernando was kidnapped by pirates. Believing that she was abandoned by Gernando, thirteen years later Constanza is grieving for her fate while sister Silvia enjoys the innocent joys of nature (such as her pet deer). Having escaped from his kidnappers, Gernando searches for Constanza and thus returns to the island. He is accompanied by his friend Enrico, whose life he once saved. Silvia meets Enrico and discovers scary feelings – and some biological wonders – which are new to her: she falls in love with Enrico, who in turn falls for Silvia. Gernando first believes that Constanza is dead but they find each other and all four look forward to a happy life on the island.
The musical material is tuneful and compact. The seven arias and the final quartet are introduced by a four-movement Sinfonia and are connected by orchestral recitatives. In this opera Haydn abandons the continuo group for the recitatives and opts for full orchestral accompaniment. The music is of the essence throughout, and there are no secco recitatives which might allow the words to dominate.
To these pairs of ears and eyes, the best quality of Rodula Gaitanou's staging is its musicality. Right from the outset she choreographs movements on the stage with the utmost respect for the music. For instance, during the opening Largo of the Sinfonia – beautifully played without any vibrato by the orchestra – there is stillness on the stage. The following Vivace section heralds movements on the stage.
It so happens that the Evening Standard published an interview with the stage director of the forthcoming ENO production of Don Giovanni the same evening as L'isola disabitata was being staged for the first time at the Royal Opera House. The ES interview mentioned that the Don Giovanni director could read music. Arguably it is a sad reflection on our times that an opera director's ability to read music is a newsworthy item. On the other hand, I am pleased to report that Rodula Gaitanou trained as a violinist, received a degree in musicology and then went on to gain a master's degree in musical dramaturgy and opera staging. In her programme notes for the synopsis and for her interpretation of the plot, Gaitanou expands on the musical content of the Sinfonia.
Gaitanou's musical knowledge and her musicality, as manifested on the stage, are without doubt. But she also uses many simple but effective stage devices such as the limping of the sad Constanza and the contrasting skipping of the joyous Silvia. There is imaginative use of simple props (like sticks, ribbons, etc) and the staging is continuous: by the time the audience enters, the plot is unfolding on stage. This continues also during the interval which raises the question: does any audience warrant such overtaxing of performers? The majority of the audience leaves during the interval, thus the notion of continuity is wasted on them.
There is also the problem of the characters in the plot looking for each other while we in the audience can see all of them very clearly. Does Gaitanou imply that sometimes we look but don't see? Or do we get an overall view of the island – that is, over the psychological problems – while the protagonists are restricted to smaller sections of the whole? While these may be questions to be considered, Silvia's growing awareness of sexual body parts are crystal clear and, for my taste, over the top: looking at these parts on the first occasion is funny but repetition spoils the fun.
The stage is open throughout and is suitably bare. The costumes too are appropriately impoverished. The lighting tends towards the dark, as currently found in far too many opera productions. (Surely the sun can shine even on a desert island?)
I have nothing but praise for the musical performance. All four singers (Anna Devlin, Elisabeth Meister, Steven Ebel and Daniel Grice) gave musical and dramatically credible interpretations. Meister's intonation was not entirely secure, but (judging by her performance in The Cunning Little Vixen a while back) this must have been a temporary problem. Anna Devlin was virtuosic not only as a singer but also as a gymnast: how could she keep up all this skipping while looking entirely at ease?
As shown by conductor Volker Krafft's concise and informative programme notes, he knows and understands the score. I am pleased to add that he also conducts with full control.
If this Jette Parker Young Artists performance is anything to go by, the future of professional music is in good hands.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Johan Persson