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Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is well known as a composer
of instrumental music. In essence, he “invented” the symphony
and the string quartet, as we know of them today. Therefore,
his operatic output is largely overlooked. Nevertheless, operatic
compositions dominated his life from about 1776 to 1791, when
his last opera was written. Although he began writing operatic
music in the 1750’s, Haydn’s earliest opera to survive dates
from 1762, shortly after he began his long tenure at the
Esterházy Court, the richest one in the Austro-Hungarian
aristocracy. In fact, all but one of Haydn’s surviving operas were
written for the Esterházy family.

About 14 total Haydn operas have survived, along with a
couple of Singspiele and a Marionette opera. “Orlando Paladino”
was his penultimate work while at the Esterházy Court, and also
Haydn’s most popular opera performed during his lifetime. Even
though he set his music to an Italian libretto, performances of a
German translation were then customary throughout Europe.

Based upon this 1976 recording released on CD during 1993,
Haydn’s operatic compositional skills were formidable. Although
he wished to make his mark using the common operatic Italian
language, it’s important to remember that he never visited Italy,
and composed these works in a more isolated environment than
his contemporaries, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) and
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). When evaluating Haydn’s
operas in comparison with Mozart’s, it’s important to remember
that Haydn didn’t have the advantage of a close collaboration with
an accomplished librettist, such as Lorenzo DaPonte, and he often
used older texts, previously set to music by other composers. It’s
only fair to consider these circumstances when assessing the
relative inferiority of his characterizations, in comparison with
those found in Mozart’s works.

So, the question often asked is “How does Haydn’s overall
level of inspiration compare with that of Mozart, from a purely
musical perspective?” While perhaps Haydn’s works didn’t
equal the finest moments in the DaPonte operas, the musical
comparison is quite favorable, especially when you consider
that “Orlando Paladino” was composed during 1782, predating
Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” or “Cosi Fan Tutte.”

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), George Frideric Handel
(1685-1759), and even Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) all tried
their hand at the “Orlando” story. In short, it is a well-worn
tale of the attempts to intercede between two lovers, who
are fortunately protected by a sorceress. As you can imagine,
“all’s well that ends well.”

Each of the singers on this recording is good, with a standout
performance by soprano Arleen Auger (1939-1993). Her first
entrance as “Angelica” in the Cavatina, “Palpita ad ogni istante,”
requires a truly long note with a crescendo, sung on one breath.
As “Orlando,” tenor George Shirley (1934 – ) displayed such
deep resonance that I initially thought he was a baritone. While
we’re speaking of baritones, Benjamin Luxon (1937 – ) sounded
great as “Rodomonte.” Lyric soprano Elly Ameling (1934 – )
beautifully sang “Eurilla,” and contralto Gwendolyn Killebrew
(1941 – ) was a very effective “Alcina.”

Antal Dorati (1906-1988) played the harpsichord in the
continuo passages accompanying the recitatives, and
conducted the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. While this
orchestra was possibly not the “last word” in ensemble
excellence, it was nonetheless quite satisfactory. The piece
was played using modern instruments, which was customary
in 1976. Dorati deserves kudos not only for this recording, but
also for the other seven Haydn operas he recorded with the
same orchestra and other world-class singers, as parts of his
“Esterházy Opera Cycle,” a 20-CD set, released on the Philips
label. It’s important to also note that Maestro Dorati recorded
all of Haydn’s Symphonies with the Philharmonia Hungarica.

I cannot address the degree of scholarship required by these
recordings, and I’m sure that recent musical “archeologists”
have unearthed information that was unavailable during the
1970’s. However, at the time of their original release, these
recordings were truly pioneering efforts. The recorded sound
is quite good, and as this performance of “Orlando Paladino”
reveals a lesser-known, yet very significant side of Haydn,
I highly recommend it.

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