Le pescatrici



Le pescatrici (The Fishergirls)

Dramma giocoso in three acts
Completed by H.C. Robbins Landon
Libretto by Carlo Goldoni
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery garden, Bampton, 17 and 18 July 2009
The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt, 30 August 2009
St John’s, Smith Square, 17 September 2009


Lesbina, a fishergirl, sister of Burlotto and in love with Frisellino Emily Rowley Jones
Nerina, a fishergirl, sister of Frisellino and in love with Burlotto Serena Kay
Burlotto, a fisherman, in love with Nerina Andrew Friedhoff
Frisellino, a fisherman, in love with Lesbina Mark Chaundy
Eurilda, believed to be the daughter of Mastricco Lina Markeby/Margaret Rapacioli
Mastricco, an elderly fisherman Robert Winslade Anderson
Lindoro, Prince of Sorrento Vojtěch Šafařík

With the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (July, August)
The London Mozart Players (September)

Conductor Alice Farnham
Director Jeremy Gray



The beach at Taranto

Act 1
The fishergirls Nerina and Lesbina are each engaged to the other’s brother, Burlotto and Frisellino, but bicker and seek a better life, preferably with a wealthy husband.  Eurilda, the supposed daughter of the old fisherman Mastricco, prefers to stay single.

Lindoro, the Prince of Sorrento, sails in unexpectedly, throwing the community into a state of excitement and the womens’ hearts aflutter.  He announces that the usurper Oronte murdered Prince Casimiro fifteen years ago but the rightful claimant to the throne of Benevento was concealed at birth, and is believed to be living in Taranto.  Lesbina and Nerina are each certain that they must be the heir.

Act 2
Burlotto and Frisellino are angry with their fickle girlfriends, but would like to promote their sisters.  Mastricco knows that Eurilda is the heir and tries to promote her.  Lindoro is confused and tries to judge between the contenders.

Interval of 20 minutes (Bampton and St John’s); 70 minutes (Westonbirt)

Lesbina, and then Nerina, do their best to convince Lindoro.  Eurilda feels hopeless with insecurity.  Lindoro reveals a treasure of untold wealth, which includes the dagger stained with the blood of Casimiro.  Eurilda’s extreme distress at seeing this reveals her as the heir and she is chosen by Lindoro.  Nerina and Lesbina are bitterly disappointed and must now try to reinstate themselves in their boyfriends’ favour.

Act 3
At a shrine, Mastricco swears that he received Eurilda as a baby from Nicandro, who had rescued her from the usurper.  Lindoro believes his honesty and offers his hand to Eurilda.

Burlotto and Frisellino disguise themselves as aristocratic cousins of Lindoro and tempt their gullible girlfriends to sail off with them to fabulous status and wealth.  Having won them round, they embarrass the unfaithful girls by revealing their identity.  The girls are furious, and Mastricco is angry with the men for their insensitive trick, insisting they make amends and marry the girls.  Lindoro and Eurilda, with Mastricco as chaperone, sail away.


a serious business with remarkable artistic standards
Opera, October 2009


a serious business with remarkable artistic standards

Opera, October 2009

As the skies threatened and we shrank beneath (in my case) blanket, shawl, scarf, mackintosh and umbrella, I wondered what weakness had made me go to Bampton to review Haydn’s drama giocoso Le pescatrici.  I’mnot keen on camping, especially without a tent.  As the excellent orchestra struck p, the clouds joined in with a merry shower, about the same length as the overture and just long enough to soak us, while a cooling gale blew a prop (a vase of flowers) to the ground within the southern-Italian seaside-café setting, a cruel fantasy of blue skies, beach-huts and golden sands.

But I am a latecomer to this enterprising festival, founded in 1993 and now branching out into other venues, including this year Westonbirt, the Cheltenham Festival, Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square.  One quickly realizes that this is a serious business with remarkable artistic standards, the simplicity of its Deanery Garden location and al fresco acoustic notwithstanding.  It has huge charm, eyes and ears for spotting young talent, no pretensions (kagouls soon put a stop to that) and a hunger for digging out operatic rarities by the likes of Benda, Gazzaniga, Paer, Paisiello and Salieri.

This was Bampton’s third Haydn, in part to celebrate the anniversary but also to build on a tradition which began with L’infedeltà delusa and La vera costanza.  The programme acknowledges the pioneering efforts of Garsington’s founder, Leonard Ingrams, in bringing these little-known works back into the repertoire, and one senses a healthy mutual support between these two Oxfordshire festivals.  Le pescatrici (1770), completed by H.C. Robbins Landon and with a Così-meets-Cenerentola plot, bubbles with constantly busy string writing, trumpet-and-drum energy and several spiffing arias.  The nine-strong cast ranged from promising to outstanding, all throwing themselves into the spirit of Jeremy Gray’s witty 1960-ish updating. Mark Chaundy and Andrew Friedhoff (the fishermen lovers) and Robert Winslade Anderson (Mastricco) were strong.  Serena Kay’s petulant fishergirl Nerina and Lina Markeby as the fervent, nun-like princess Eurilda combined secure vocal agility with well-crafted acting.  As the solemn foreign Prince, the Czech baritone Vojtech Safarik was silken-toned and controlled, his clear but slightly accented English giving the right touch of exoticism.  The evening’s best singing came from Emily Rowley Jones (Lesbina), who wiggled her hips and fired off her coloratura with crisp precision and sharp humour.  Alice Farnham, conducting, held all together with spirited aplomb, despite the difficulties of the singers often not being able to see her beat. That a few near-disasters were averted was a credit to everyone’s preparation.  The rhyming translation, by Gray and Gilly French (Bampton’s artistic directors) was brilliant, racy and audible, losing no opportunity for jokes of the fishy and chippy variety.  We all had a whale of a time.


Fiona Maddocks


a radiant whole
Opera Today, 20 September 2009


a radiant whole

Opera Today, 20 September 2009

Bampton Classical Opera have two areas of specialism: little-known gems of the late eighteenth-century and ‘opera in adversity’.

Whether it’s downpours and blackouts in the Oxfordshire countryside which force a retreat to a candlelit church, or indisposed singers who compel director Jeremy Gray himself to tread the boards (Benda’s Romeo and Juliet, 2007) or require a student drama student to read the text for a miming singer (Schubert’s The Conspirators, 2009), Bampton Classical Opera must sometimes feel that the Fates are against them. Critics have rightly noted that the company “deserves a prize for quirky, courageous planning” but one might also add that they excel in spontaneous and creative ‘damage limitation’! For this performance of Haydn’s seldom-performed dramma giocoso, Le Pescatrici, the late indisposition of the leading tenor, Andrew Friedhoff (Burlotto), necessitated some rapid re-imagining: in the event, Friedhoff was able to sing the recitative, his arias were excised, and Burlotto’s contributions to the ensembles were delivered by Philip Salmon from the front of the orchestral area. An unfussy solution, and one which scarcely disrupted the musical and dramatic rhythm and logic — indeed, if it had not been for the appearance of Salmon on the platform at the curtain, to receive his well-deserved applause, I suspect many in the audience would not have noticed anything unusual or amiss …

Haydn’s reputation may rest largely on his body of instrumental works, including the 104 symphonies and over 80 string quartets, but vocal music and vocal aesthetics were at the heart of his musical and personal identity throughout his career. His early vocal training was crucial to the formation of his style, as he became familiar with the vocally-based, sensual strands in German musical thought in the early 1750s, singing simple tunes to his father’s harp, training with the choir at St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, studying the ‘instrumental arias’ of C.P.E. Bach and the vocal compositions of the great Italian masters. It is therefore not surprising that everything Haydn wrote, even the most complex ideas, ‘sings’ so effortlessly and beautifully.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Haydn’s own concern that the relative isolation of the Esterháza palace would be detrimental to his compositional development, he was familiar with the most up-to-date trends and fashions in vocal music, well aware of the niceties of the Italian operatic tradition within which he worked. Moreover, in keeping with the contemporary aesthetic theory espoused by Rousseau and others, Le Pescatrici has relatively simple plot, with few incidents but many opportunities to explore the characters’ psychological depths and motivations. The context of the first performance — a celebration of the noble wedding of Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s niece, the Countess von Lamberg, and his Highness the Count of Poggi, staged in a new 400-seat opera house built by the extravagant Prince — led to small alternations being made to Goldoni’s play. Haydn’s opera, in which true nobility and aristocratic grace win through, and the fickle peasant classes are exposed as greedy and presumptuous, was a perfect parable for the occasion.

Two feckless fisher girls, Nerina and Lesbina, are each engaged to the other’s brother, Burlotto and Frisellino respectively. But, desirous of more wealthy and illustrious husbands, they are excited by the arrival of Prince Lindoro; he is seeking the rightful heir to the throne of Benevento, whose identity was concealed at birth during a violent coup. Each of the fortune-hunting girls immediately sets about convincing Lindoro that they are the true claimant, to the annoyance of their suitors. Mastricco, a worldly old fisherman, knows better, however; for it is the demure, gentle Eurilda, his supposed daughter, who is the rightful inheritor. Despite the enterprising efforts of the flighty fisher girls, true nobility shines through and justice is restored. But not before the spurned young men seize the opportunity to humiliate their capricious fiancées with a ‘Così-like’ trick: disguising themselves as the well-bred cousins of Lindoro, they woo their ladies (in this case, their own, to avoid any incestuous advances!) by promising them untold riches and luxury. When the ruse is exposed, it is Mastricco who must step in to restore order and harmony.

The imposing Baroque interior of St John’s Smith Square may lack some of the lavish opulence of the original venue, but this mattered not as the sets designed by Mike Wareham and Anthony Hall swept us far from twilight London to the idyllic Italian south, depositing us in the small fishing village of Taranto. An aquamarine gleam imbued all, illuminating a picture-perfect coastal backdrop; and what with the brightly painted fish-stalls and sun-bleached beach huts — with obligatory sea-gull perched aloft — one could almost forget the evening’s decidedly autumnal chill. This was a fresh, uncluttered set, but one which offered many an opportunity for Jeremy Gray’s typically deft visual witticisms — not least the changing theatre bills which reminded us of Le Pescatrici’s operatic ‘relations’, La Cenerentola and Così fan tutte.

A fire at the Esterháza opera house in 1779 resulted in the loss of almost one third of the score. Several significant scenes in Acts 1 and 2 are missing and when the opera was staged at Garsington in 1997, a prize of £2000 was offered for the “best restoration of missing parts”! Bampton adopted the more conventional approach of using the reconstruction made in 1965 by the esteemed Haydn scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon.

The replacement numbers for Act 1 and Act 2 are certainly in keeping with the lyrical, serenade-like idiom of Haydn’s original sections. However, the necessary excision of Burlotto’s mock-heroic first aria and the rather uniform mood, mode and timbre of the sequence of opening arias, resulted in a lack of variety at the start of Act 1; thus, while an atmosphere of delight and relaxation was created, characterisation was not firmly established in musical terms, although subsequent arias, particularly those for Lesbina and Nerina in Act 2, were more strikingly individual. What was apparent, from the opening bars of the overture, was that the London Mozart Players were on fine form, under the baton of Alice Farnham. In particular, the sweet, warm woodwind colours, à la divertimento, as in the tender introduction to the second scene, evoked the gentle, lazy heat of the Italian sunshine.

Throughout, the ensemble between the orchestra and singers was superb; two large television screens proved an effective means of overcoming one of the inherent problems of the venue, where the necessity of placing orchestral players behind the singers can hinder effective communication between conductor and cast. One might have wished for a little more energy and sprightlier tempi from Farnham in the ensembles, particularly in the Act 1 finale, with its gradual accumulation of musical and dramatic urgency, but overall the structure was well-judged. The continuo playing of Kelvin Lim was particularly noteworthy, skilfully creating dramatic momentum and continuity in the recitatives.

Supported by such an assured orchestral platform, it was the leading ladies who sparkled most brightly. Bampton regulars, Emily Rowley Jones (Lesbina) and Serena Kay (Nerina), pouted and pranced, flounced and flirted convincingly, both sopranos relishing the humour and sustaining the verve and energy. After some initial intonation problems, Rowley Jones settled into the role, negotiating both the pompous coloratura and deflating patter (thereby exposing the falsity of her claims and revealing her humdrum roots) in her Act 2 aria with confidence and assurance. Kay used her upper range particularly effectively.

In the role of Eurilda, Margaret Rapacioli certainly presented an effective contrast to the flightiness of the other fisher girls; the simplicity of Eurilda’s melodies reminds one of the classical grace and dignity of Gluck, but although she conveyed an appropriate dramatic serenity and sincerity, Rapacioli did not quite possess the sustained lyricism of line and depth of tone necessary to express the integrity and graciousness of Eurilde.

Mark Chaundy, as Frisellino, demonstrated a nimbleness of movement and lightness of voice, just right for this simple, undemanding young lover; while bass Robert Winslade Anderson was an appealing Mastricco. The expansive range required in his Act 1 aria posed some challenges, particularly at the top, but his consistently excellent diction more than compensated, to which he needed only a few economic visual and physical gestures to deftly convey both the wisdom and mischief of the wily old fisherman. Given the consistency of the soloists, it was a pity, therefore, that baritone Vojtech Safarik (Lindoro) seemed less assured. Under-powered vocally, rather stiff physically, and with little variety of tone, Safarik tended to shout when a forte was required; he was somewhat overshadowed in the ensembles, which had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the opera’s emphasis on the power and dignity of the ‘nobility’.

But, overall this was a well-matched cast. Caroline Kennedy and Rosa French, as decorative bellezze al bagno, enhanced the comic spirit. And, in the ensembles, particularly the Act 1 finale and the tranquil farewell to Lindoro and Eurilda, the voices blended into a radiant whole.

In his public statements about his oeuvre, Haydn consistently placed his vocal works ahead of his instrumental compositions. This performance, which conveyed the company’s genuine belief in the opera’s merits and which perfectly straddled the line between irony and sincerity, certainly suggested that a reassessment of Haydn’s operatic achievement is long overdue.


Claire Seymour


plenty of laughs…. strongly cast
The Oxford Times, 24 July 2009


plenty of laughs…. strongly cast

The Oxford Times, 24 July 2009

“We had to use the church last night, for only the fourth time in 16 years,” I was told when I arrived at Bampton on Saturday for Haydn’s Le pescatrici. For a while, it seemed that we were destined for the church too, as the rain began during the overture and continued, with relentless determination, during the opening scene. Fortunately, it did stop, and there was even some sunshine, turning Bampton’s picturesque church steeple briefly into a golden monument. But you do have to wonder why we are so keen on alfresco opera in this country, given the vagaries of our weather. Even after the rain stopped, it remained dull and overcast, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience who spent the next two-and-a-half hours trying not to shiver.

If anybody should have been shivering, though, it was the cast, most of whom were scantily clad in shorts or bathing costumes, as the action took place — rather ironically in the circumstances — on a sun-soaked beach in the fishing village of Taranto in Southern Italy. Set to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, Le pescatrici is the tale of two fishergirls, Nerina and Lesbina, who are each engaged to the other’s brother.

When a wealthy Prince, Lindoro, arrives seeking the missing heir to the throne of Benevento, Nerina and Lesbina are both desperate to be identified as the true claimaint, so that they can sail away to a life of riches and luxury. Furious at their fickle behaviour, the girls’ lovers, Burlotto and Frisellino, disguise themselves as Lindoro’s aristocratic cousins and successfully woo them before revealing their identities. Meanwhile, Eurilda, the demure and unassuming daughter of ageing fisherman Mastricco, is revealed as the true heir. The opera ends with the four lovers achieving an uneasy truce.

With a bright new English translation by Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, the production raised plenty of laughs. Emily Rowley Jones and Serena Kay were strongly cast as Nerina and Lesbina, handling their arias with aplomb and flirting outrageously. Andrew Friedhoff and Mark Chaundy matched them well as their lovers, although Friedhoff appeared to be struggling with some of his upper notes. Lina Markeby gave a moving performance as Eurilda, while Robert Winslade Anderton was vocally powerful and full of fun as Mastricco. Alice Farnham conducted the Bampton Opera Orchestra with impeccable timing and control.


Nicola Lisle



Blazing creative genius
Richard Wigmore


Blazing creative genius

Many an eighteenth-century European prince dreamed of creating his own Versailles. Haydn’s employer Prince Nicolaus Esterházy was one of the few with the means to turn fantasy into reality. By 1766 he had transformed a modest hunting lodge in the malarial marshland south-east of Lake Neusiedl into a rococo Italianate showpiece to rival the Viennese Habsburg palace of Schönbrunn. Two years later he celebrated the completion of a 400-seat opera house in the grounds of Eszterháza, as he decreed the new palace should be called, with Haydn’s new comic opera Lo speziale, to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni. Nicolaus and his entourage were duly delighted, prompting Haydn to embark on another, more ambitious opera based on a Goldoni comedy, Le pescatrici (The fisher-girls).

The lavishly-spending Prince had hired several new singers in the winter of 1768-9; and the increased forces at his disposal allowed Haydn a cast of seven principals, with five buffo and two serious roles. For the many ensembles – a unique feature of Haydn’s Eszterháza operas – the soloists were probably augmented by choristers bussed in from Eisenstadt. The underlying theme of Haydn’s new dramma giocoso is virtually the obverse of Le nozze di Figaro’s. Whereas Mozart’s revolutionary comedy is an indictment of aristocratic privilege, the moral of Le pescatrici is that those of blue blood have an innate dignity and nobility of spirit, in contrast to the frivolous, fickle peasant girls with ideas far above their station. This affirmation of the social status quo made Le pescatrici a shrewd choice for the opulent wedding celebrations of Prince Nicolaus’s niece, Countess von Lamberg, and Count Pocci on 16 September 1770.  The Wiener Diarium – eighteenth-century Vienna’s equivalent of The Tatler – reported that the opera was performed ‘with all possible skill and art by the princely singers and instrumentalists, to universal and richly deserved applause’, and eulogised Haydn’s ‘blazing creative genius’. True to form, Prince Nicolaus spared no expense, importing three theatrical painters and the tailor from the Vienna Court Opera for the occasion. The Esterházy archives contain a hefty bill by the tailor Paul Eygner for eight ‘fisher costumes for the new opera’.

Around a third of the music from Acts One and Two of Le pescatrici was lost in the disastrous fire that gutted the Eszterháza opera house in November 1779. For the 1965 Holland and Edinburgh festivals – the first known stagings since the composer’s lifetime – the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon completed the recitatives and arias that survived only as fragments to create a viable performing version. For the overture Landon used a recently discovered Allegro that may have served as the original overture in 1770, while for the arrival of Lindoro’s boat in Act One he plundered a minuet from an early Haydn wind divertimento. Tonight’s performance of this delightful opera follows the Landon edition.

Goldoni sets the action in the fishing village of Taranto on the Ionian coast of southern Italy, an idyllic locale evoked in the many atmospheric stage sets indicated by the playwright. A jolly ‘chorus of fishermen’ introduces the comic lovers, all sporting typical buffo names: Burlotto and Frisellino (sung in 1770 by tenors Leopold Dichtler and Carl Friberth) are paired with each other’s sisters, Nerina and Lesbina (played, doubtless to the Esterházy court’s amusement, by the tenors’ wives, Barbara Dichtler and Magdalena Friberth). Burlotto hymns a fisherman’s endurance of the elements in a vast, mock-heroic aria (‘Through tempest, storm and battering’) designed to showcase Dichtler’s coloratura prowess. Frisellino responds with an aria parading the instruments that will feature at his rustic wedding. Haydn here gives colourful opportunities to the (for 1770) unusually large wind contingent of flute, oboes, bassoon and horns, with the second horn delving into the depths to suggest bucolic drones.

Both girls reveal themselves as knowing minxes. Nerina’s aria, in typical soubrette style, alternates slow and fast tempos, while Lesbina sings an insinuating minuet song, ‘After all I should enjoy myself’, in which oboes are replaced by duskier-toned cors anglais. Haydn’s leisurely preamble also includes a fragment of an aria for Eurilda, presumed daughter of the wily old fisherman Mastricco.

The action proper, a variation on the Cinderella story, is kick-started by the entry of Prince Lindoro, a part written for long-serving Esterházy baritone Christian Specht.  He recounts his perilous voyage in a tumultuous Sturm und Drang D minor aria (‘Far across the sea he wanders’) replete with syncopations, frenzied string writing, and gigantic vocal leaps to display Specht’s phenomenal range. After an aria for Lesbina that switches from pastoral lyricism to extravagant coloratura, and a gravely beautiful ensemble extolling the delights of a shade and calm, Lindoro announces that he is seeking a lost princess brought to the village fifteen years ago to escape her father’s murderer. The girls immediately eye their chance; and in the Act One finale – a typical lively buffo ensemble of mutual recrimination –  Burlotto and Frisellino mock their girlfriends’ absurd pretensions to nobility.  

Act Two opens with the fishermen out for revenge. To get his own back on Lesbina and claim the prince’s promised reward of gold and jewels, Frisellino, in a tripping comic aria, tells Lindoro that his sister Nerina is the princess he seeks; Burlotto makes the same claim for Lesbina. After a song for Mastricco in alternating slow and fast sections, the girls redouble their efforts to impress Lindoro with their aristocratic credentials. Lesbina betrays her true status when her aria (‘Look very closely and you’ll agree’) switches from over-the-top coloratura to buffo patter. In a scene for which no music survives, Eurilda is revealed as the lost princess when she recognises the jewel-studded dagger used to murder her father. The finale is again a quartet for the warring lovers, following the Goldoni tradition that first- and second-act finales should only involve comic characters. The girls, deflated by Eurilda’s revelation, hurriedly beg forgiveness and manage to worm their way back into their boyfriends’ affections. Or so it seems in the bouncy Presto coda.

For the opening of Act Three the location changes to a temple dedicated to Neptune, duly celebrated in a rousing C major ensemble. Eurilda sings of her love for Lindoro in a Cavatina (‘Heart and hand I promise wholly’) whose chaste simplicity of line – shades here of Gluck – contrasts pointedly with the fisher-girls’ extravagances. In a further plot twist, Burlotto and Frisellino now decide to have some fun at the girls’ expense. Disguising themselves as ‘cavaliers’, relatives of Lindoro, they succeed with alarming ease in wooing their own girlfriends. Though Goldoni’s pairings are unchanged (otherwise the men would have been courting their sisters), the parallels with Così fan tutte,composed two decades later,are unmissable. With Burlotto and Frisellino still in disguise, all wish Eurilda and Lindoro a tranquil voyage in a beautiful ensemble evocative of murmuring zephyrs (‘See how the air is still’), in the radiant key of E major. When the ruse is revealed, Mastricco calms the incensed girls and engineers a swift reconciliation. In the finale, culminating in the usual merry 6/8 romp, the lovers reflect on the lesson they have learned and promise to make a fresh start. From what we know of the girls’ temperaments, the marriages should be interesting.

Richard Wigmore


‘Comedy was created to correct vice and ridicule bad customs’ (Goldoni)
Jeremy Gray


‘Comedy was created to correct vice and ridicule bad customs’ (Goldoni)

Whilst Haydn’s lasting reputation appears to reside firmly in the realm of instrumental music, the quartets and symphonies especially, his considerable theatrical experience built up over two decades at Eszterháza gave him a facility and confidence in opera which, like many of his contemporaries, he placed at the core of his career.  Haydn’s first instrument was the voice – he was a boy chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, and may have narrowly escaped becoming a castrato – and the very earliest years of his career provided several opportunities to write church vocal and theatrical music.  Even as late as 1776, by which time he had written sixty-odd symphonies, it was his operas Le pescatrici, L’infedeltà delusa and L’incontro improvviso which he proudly designated in his Autobiographical Sketch as the works which had received most praise.  Five years later he longed to have further operas presented beyond the courtly confines of Eszterháza - “I promise you that such a work has not been heard in Paris, nor even perhaps in Vienna.  It’s my misfortune to live in the country”.  Ultimately – and perhaps mindful of Mozart’s success - he came to realise that his operas were too intimately associated with the resources of his aristocratic residency and the tastes of his patron, to be suitable for general export.  He concluded his run of Eszterháza operas with Armida (which set a personal record of 54 performances over five years) and only returned to the genre with his London interpretation of the Orfeo myth, L’anima del filosopho of 1791 (unperformed until 1951).  It was in the late symphonies as well as The Creation that his sense of dramatic development and emotional expression perhaps found its eventual and most accomplished outlet.

In searching for the demise of Haydn’s operatic oeuvre (a fate shared until recently by every other operatic composer of the eighteenth century – even Mozart was long neglected), critics have generally blamed his acceptance of weak libretti – although most were in fact popular works set by many other composers of the period.  Perhaps it is not surprising that in a recent issue of Opera magazine in which fourteen critics were invited to express their thoughts about Haydn’s operas and to make their ‘desert-island’ choice, the most popular was his ‘desert-island’ opera, L’isola disabitata.  Set to a libretto by the doyen of Arcadian opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, the text inspired a highly-integrated score of poetic genius, a work of rare beauty quite unlike anything by Mozart.

Nevertheless Haydn made a secure choice with the libretti of Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) for three of his early comic operas Lo speziale, Le pescatrici, and Il mondo della luna.  Goldoni had reinvested the increasingly atrophied tradition of commedia dell’arte with a new and piquant realism – as in all good comedy we may recognise ourselves in the foibles, petty ambitions and debunking of his characters.  Whilst Goldoni’s sheer facility and output – he once claimed to be able to write a comic libretto in just four days - may have inevitably led to repetition of character, situation and outcome, he nevertheless had a profound impact on the development of comic theatre and opera.  Goldoni’s flair lay in situation and plots, not in literary expression and subtlety, and his varied structures of dialogue, monologues and ensembles were formative on the developments of opera buffa in the mid eighteenth-century.  His works were set by most of the significant composers of the late Baroque and early classical period – Bertoni, Cimarosa, Galuppi, Gassmann, Mozart, Paisiello, Piccinni, Salieri, Traetta and Vivaldi.  Even Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose brilliance often lay more in adaptation than invention, imitated Goldoni in Così fan tutte – a scarcely unbelievable tale of fidelity tested and tempted through disguise, and possibly influenced by Le pescatrici.

Goldoni’s Le pescatrici was first set as an opera by Ferdinando Bertoni for the Teatro S. Samuele, Venice in 1751, becoming the composer’s most successful comic opera with fourteen separate productions in Europe in the following two decades.  At Eszterháza, as commonly happened, the text was significantly revised, probably by Carl Friberth, the virtuoso tenor who created the role of Frisellino and who later wrote the libretto for L’incontro improvviso.  Amongst the changes were three new arias for Lesbina, who was sung by his wife Maddalena Fribberth – she was clearly the prima donna at Eszterháza, commanding a handsome annual salary of 500 florins, compared to the 100 florins of Barbara Dichtler, who played Nerina.  In this revision, Prince Lindoro’s entrance aria was replaced with a stunningly tempestuous one: Varca il mar (Far across the sea he wanders), borrowed – appropriately for this seria role - from Metastasio.  But curiously for an opera designed to celebrate an aristocratic wedding, the ambivalent pessimism of this aria paints a very different character from that in Goldoni, and suggests that even nobility cannot always control fate.  Indeed, if Lindoro is to inherit the throne of Benevento to which he aspires, he is dependent on the acquiescence of Eurilda, a mere fishergirl in situation if not (as she, and we, discover) by birth.

Haydn designated the opera as dramma giocoso, a term applied to many settings of Goldoni and later used for Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  As the term suggests, the genre combines comic, low-life characters (Lesbina and Frisellino, Nerina and Burlotto) with the serious (Lindoro) and those ‘in mezzo carattere’ (Mastricco and Eurilda), and so enables a varied complexity of status, mood and pace.  These strata are expressed through the nature of their music, with plenty of opportunity for parody.  Nevertheless, the dignity of nobility is upheld, and it is the vice of ambition and self-promotion which is ridiculed.  Social hierarchies are maintained, and we are entertained and – if we choose – educated in  virtue.  As most great comics recognise, their art is most cogent when it is used to effect moral transformation.

Jeremy Gray