La vera costanza

Haydn

Information

Dramma giocoso in three acts
Music by Joseph Haydn, 1778
Libretto by Francesco Puttini and Pietro Travaglia
English translation by Murray Hipkin and Gilly French

The Deanery garden, Bampton, 16 and 17 July 2004

Cast

Rosina, a fishergirl
Serena Kay
Baroness Irene, aunt of Count Errico
Amanda Pitt
Lisetta, the Baroness's maid
Ilona Domnich
Count Errico, a fickle and capricious young man, secretly married to Rosina Huw Rhys-Evans
Ernesto, a marquis and friend of the Count
Nicholas Sharratt
Masino, head fisherman and Rosina's brother
Brian Parsons
Villotto Villano, a rich fop, engaged to Rosina Nicholas Merryweather
   
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Director Alexander Clifton
Orchestra Sally Fenton (leader), Camilla Scarlett, Alison Cutting, Philip Augar, Kate Bailey, Stewart Attwood, Claire Parkin, Felicity Cormack violin; Morgan Goff, Gill Barbour viola; Judith Dallosso, Steve Buck 'cello; Anne Allen, Megan Skinner flute; Carolyn King, Sheila Nicholls oboe; Simon Payne bassoon; Justin Rhodes timpani

 

Synopsis

Act I
In a terrible storm, a small boat makes an emergency landing at a fishing village, and the Baroness Irene, the Marquis Ernesto, the fop Villotto and the baroness's maid Lisetta are rescued by the local fisherpeople, Masino and his sister. The meeting is fortuitous for the Baroness who has been fearful of rumours that her unpredictable nephew Count Errico was to marry a poor fishergirl, Rosina. She now finds that Masino's sister is this same Rosina, whom she has been hoping to find and to distract by marrying her off to Villotto; meanwhile the Baroness has promised her own hand to Ernesto if she succeeds in the plot. However, the artful baroness and her shipwrecked party are quite unaware that not only did Errico marry Rosina five years previously, but a child was born subsequent to Errico's mysterious and long-term departure.

Irene attempts to persuade Rosina to accept Villotto; Rosina suffers the torment of loyalty to an absent and possibly indifferent husband. Unexpectedly Errico arrives, and threatens to shoot Villotto; Ernesto attempts to support the Baroness’s ploy by threatening Masino unless he persuades his sister to accept her new suitor.

Errico cruelly tests his wife’s constancy by speaking heartlessly, and when Villotto stammers that he has decided to give up on marriage and go to war, the Count adopts the military metaphor as an image of how to lay siege to a woman’s heart. Rosina confides in Lisetta, and unhappily appeals to the Baroness for death. Masino and Villotto are almost fighting when Lisetta warns them to hide from Errico and Ernesto; terrified, they run away. Rosina begs Errico to kill her, but instead he embraces her. The Baroness is angry to find them, and shows Errico a picture of an intended bride – when he incautiously expresses admiration, Rosina is convinced that she has lost him for ever.

Act II
In the Baroness’s castle Ernesto appeals to Rosina; his happiness depends on her acceptance of Villotto. His declaration that only she can bring him happiness is however overheard and misconstrued by the Baroness and Errico: they both turn on Rosina, as do Villotto and Lisetta, and she decides to flee. Errico, enraged at her ‘infidelity’ commands Villotto to find and kill her. Lisetta realises the deception and persuades Errico that Rosina is faithful. Errico is dismayed at what he has done, and goes to look for her.

Rosina flees with her son to the fishing village and hides in an abandoned tower. Masino arrives looking for her, and falls asleep exhausted; Villotto is about to kill him when he is stopped by Lisetta. The Baroness and Ernesto arrive and everyone goes in search of Rosina. Errico finds a small boy alone, who leads him to Rosina: he begs forgiveness and embraces his son, defying the anger of the Baroness and Ernesto.

Act III
The Baroness makes a final attempt to divide the couple and sends Errico and Rosina forged letters, each apparently signed by the other. Both see through the trick, and they are drawn to declare their renewed love. The Baroness finds the happily reunited family and is forced to accept Rosina as her nephew’s wife. She keeps her promise to marry Ernesto.

Reviews

Melting moments that are the best of Haydn
The Times, 19 July 2004

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Melting moments that are the best of Haydn

The Times, 19 July 2004

Always an insane venture, Bampton Classical Opera eschews such fripperies as shelter and performs in the garden of a Cotswold deanery. Last year outraged nature forced the operation into the local church, so this time the company faced down the elements by staging a work that opens in a tempest. It worked, too, despite showers in isolated arias which the game singers steamed gently through.

Haydn’s 1778 work is not as unknown as many of those the company unearths, but it is still, like all the composer’s operas, unjustly ignored. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, composed ten years later, it is a mixture of opera seria and buffa full of social nuance and cross-class relationships. It also prefigures Mozart to a degree, not only in its extended finales but in musical characterisation: there are adumbrations of Leporello, Masetto and Zerlina that go beyond idiomatic cliché.

With its bad-ass aristos and traduced domestics it is a high-point of the regrettable phenomenon known as Sentimentalism which Jane Austen dealt with so briskly in Sense and Sensibility. It even features a child, the kiss of death to an art form which tends to a laudable separation of the erotic and reproductive functions.

Fish-girl Rosina, loved, fer-tilised and left by toff Errico, is subject to the attentions of the local Countess (aunt of Errico), who wants her to marry the rich booby Villotto for no apparent reason, before she herself will agree to pair off with an etiolated marquis. In the end errant Errico returns to Rosina, despite her commonness: more stark realism.

The story is not brilliantly told, and wasn’t helped by an iffy translation and a standard production by Alexander Clifton. Bampton’s calling-card has been founder Jeremy Gray’s spacey, faux-naïve stagings; this was a bit of a let-down, particularly since the opera is loaded with absurdist opportunities, notably in the proto-Rossinian finales and the character of Villotto, a Woosterish oaf engagingly played by Nicholas Merryweather.

Serena Kay’s droopy Rosina was quite affecting but unkindly unsexed by the director. The rest of the cast provided good ensemble, and Murray Hipkin paced the extended finales neatly and coaxed beautifully idiomatic woodwind playing from the orchestra: this score has melting moments that are the best of Haydn, a luminosity and variety of scoring quite different from Mozart’s that make you despair of the man’s neglect.

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Robert Thicknesse

 

The subtle kinship linking Bampton Opera so warmly to its audience
Oxford Times, 23 July 2004

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The subtle kinship linking Bampton Opera so warmly to its audience

Oxford Times, 23 July 2004

Bampton Opera duly parted the Red Seas of this summer’s gloomy weather last Saturday to entertain a picknicking audience with Alexander Clifton’s version of Haydn’s La vera costanza. The Deanery garden seemed even more crowded this year. Word gets round of course. Traditionally, Bampton punches kilograms above apparent weight and this time Haydn’s far from milksop music helped to catch our expectations of the opera buffa style repeatedly off-guard. The purr of Murray Hipkin’s players never over-manicured the edge of Haydn’s veering moods; and the sparks that flew merged with the pleasing crackle of events on stage.

Murray Hipkin, with Gilly French, was also author of the English rendering. At one level the Bampton translations, using terms like ‘barking mad’, ‘bang goes the wedding!’ or ‘I’ve never heard such baloney’, cause mirth as elements outlandish to the museum-piece patina coating baroque recitative. At another, they peel away this dignity (never meant to be there anyway) and for all the period dress, re-jig the cast as hip purveyors of a slangy idiom. That contrast may be part of the joke; it’s also a way of signalling that, underneath the flummery, these on-stage folk are just like us. The subtle kinship linking Bampton Opera so warmly to its audience is the result.

The production paraded a well-matched and balanced ensemble, seven in all, and all hinting at a range and depth beyond instant need. Here was Serena Kay, as the fishergirl, steering the mood from tongue-in-cheek to rococo sentiment with effortless finesse; elsewhere, Nicholas Merryweather, his vocal style so natural it seemed like speech, looking artfully dishevelled and awkward as the fop. Ilona Domnich, in the meaty part of Lisetta, the maid, was as usual admirable; and a newcomer, Nicholas Sharratt, emerging on the outside stretch – as Irene’s suitor – proved richly impressive.

A bare dais, no backdrop but the tailored hedges of the Deanery, occasioned cheeky devices in the staging. A shipwreck? Sure, just jog some placards up and down, depicting a vessel in a jam. Entrances? Well, anywhere you like: including arranging for the whole cast, after dusk, to pop up from behind the hedges, lit up like spooks. The world, you soon felt, seemed not a bad place after all. Bampton, bless ‘em, had done it again.

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Derek Jole

 

superb in all departments
Opera, September 2004

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superb in all departments

Opera, September 2004

Bampton’s ‘A’ team - including formidable new recruits - was reserved for La Vera Costanza, staged outdoors in Oxfordshire a month later. For it they engaged a new director (a shrewd choice again) : the patently gifted Alexander Clifton, an ENO staffer whose fine-detail tweaking of comedy – aptly enough, Bampton is sponsored by the Joyce Grenfell Trust - dovetailed seamlessly with the effervescent, quirky style Gray has established. I didn’t see a bad wheeze all evening : every idea, move and entry seemed polished, finished, thought through; relevant, deuced clever and McVicar-like. Clifton’s cast responded gamely to sophisticated comedy : everything gelled admirably.

‘Ah well, of course it’s not Mozart’ is a perception Haydn himself – whether mischievously or self-protectingly – apparently promoted. And when you strain ears for the beguiling obbligati (pirouetting horns and a patch of fabulous flute writing furnish obvious exceptions), indeed it’s not. Rather, this notably wise piece acquires Figaro-like definition by its arias, constantly shifting ensembles, and the clever clotting of characters and moods in Puttini and Travaglia’s libretto (here in a delightfully cheeky rhymed translation by conductor Murray Hipkin and Gilly French.)

Brian Parsons stood out as the loyal fisher-brother, Masino; Nicholas Merryweather epitomised Bampton’s gift for playing comedy to the gills without ever quite overstepping. Amanda Pitt made an amusing Baroness; Nicholas Sharratt beguiled as her vexed admirer. Ilona Domnich revealed Haydn’s maid Lisetta as almost a Susanna model. A substantial aria for Errico by Anfossi – seemingly borrowed by Haydn himself for Esterhazy - was charmingly retained.

Best of all, Huw Rhys-Jones – delightful as Flute in ETO’s recent Britten Dream - delivering Errico’s mock militaristic love-lesson (shades of Cherubino hover too); and Serena Kay as Haydn’s enchanting Rosina : it’s her constancy that flies in the face of inter-class (and here cross-generation) affections to win her ineptly jealous spouse back. As for Hipkin’s finales : superb, in all departments.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

the real joy of the English summer opera season...
Opera Now, November 2004

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the real joy of the English summer opera season...

Opera Now, November 2004

When I see an opera being described as 'seldom performed' or 'neglected' in a programme, I start to shift nervously in my seat preparing myself for a work that was ripped up and thrown away by the composer for a very good reason. One explanation for the unpopularity of Haydn's operas is that when it came to writing for the stage, his skills as a dramatist simply didn't match his genius in other areas - neither did he have the good fortune and judgement of Mozart when it came to the quality of the librettists he selected.

Despite there being something charming about La vera costanza - a quasi-serious comedy of love overcoming the social divide, where the heroine remians faithful to the father of her child in the face of hostility from him and his ghastly family - it is full of flaws, not least the entire final act where dozens of loose ends are tied together in a laughingly unconvincing few minutes.

Director Alex Clifton, the cast and orchestra did a good job despite the material they were given and brought out the comedy well. Clifton's tasteful slapstick, fine use of open spaces of the formal garden of the Deanery in Bampton, and an excellent staging of the overture made the trip worthwhile in themselves.

Serena Kay was excellent vocally and dramatically as the patient, wronged heroine, Rosina. Her lover, Huw Rhys-Evans, was suitably weak-willed, visibly wilting under the watchful eye of his aunt Baroness Irene, played by a confident Amanda Pitt. Putt's maid Lisetta (Ilona Domnich), suitor Ernesto (Nicholas Sharratt) and Masino, Rosina's brother (Brian Parsons) kept the humour bubbling along and produced some very fine singing. But it was the hapless Nicholas Merryweather as Villotto Villano who stole the show - time and time again he is rebuffed in his courtship of Rosina but he comes back like a faithful, optimistic puppy. There weren't many sustained vocal passages that he could sink his teeth into, but we heard enough to establish that he has a very fine, weighty baritone.

But for me, the real joy of the English summer opera season is the people-watching one can enjoy at places like Bampton - as much drama occurs on the lawn as on stage; the jealous glances at superior picnics, the polite jostling for the best pitch, the husband who has drunk too much champagne before the end of the overture. Who, I wonder, will write the first opera about opera audiences?

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Matthew Peacock

 

a cast of bold dramatic range and beguiling musical gifts
Opera News

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a cast of bold dramatic range and beguiling musical gifts

Opera News

Haydn’s La Vera Costanza, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is dubbed a ‘dramma giocoso’; and very jocund it is. Its score, composed for Esterhazy in 1778/9, was destroyed by fire, but revamped for further staging in 1785. Its quality ensembles and dramatic characterisation even invite comparison with Mozart’s Figaro, first staged a year later (1786); and it shares with Piccinni’s La Cecchina, Paisiello’s Nina (and even Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera) a saintly dramatic heroine surmounting all ills – a fresh genre paving the way for Medea, Lucia, Amina (in La Sonnambula) and Norma.

This was arguably Bampton’s best staging yet. Co-producers Jeremy Gray and Gilly French engaged English National Opera’s gifted young staff director Alexander Clifton, whose acute sense of relevant detail already rivals David McVicar’s; and his ingenious production was much helped by the capable conducting and vivacious continuo of Murray Hipkin – another ENO regular – and a cast of bold dramatic range and beguiling musical gifts.

Despite a predictably Plautine, sub-Commedia dell’Arte story, La Vera Costanza, sung in Hipkin and French’s vivid, raunchily rhyming translation, hinged on real emotions and intense, tangible feelings. Central to this outwardly amiable tale of shipwrecked aristocrats rescued by humble fisherfolk – Haydn had already alighted here with the skimpier Le Pescatrici (1770) - are an attractive couple endowed with strong, passionate emotions : Rosina, the heroine, has bridged the social gap to have an affair with, and a child by, a wayward errant aristocrat, Errico - who is gradually drawn to embrace responsible domesticity, whatever the social consequences.

Serena Kay’s Rosina revealed both enchanting tone and a vital musical personality; while in the gun-toting Errico’s famous scena, graphically likening the pursuits of love to those of the chase, Huw Rhys-Evans, with equally gorgeous tone and engaging personality, brought the house down – although this being a garden event (the topiaried Deanery Garden at Bampton is one of Britain’s most idyllic opera settings) - the sky was our roof. Errico’s unwitting encounter with his tiny son (Joseph Allinson), and a path of flute obbligato as he yields to Rosina, were moving beyond words.

At one moment Clifton had six separate comic vignettes playing in subtle counterpoint : controlling these was the mark of a master. Costumes (from London’s National Theatre), were superbly apt; cast make-up was far superior to previous stagings; the placard-waving storm was hilarious; and Gray’s homespun designs - as ever - a delight. Haydn’s ensembles and finales emerged beautifully polished. Amanda Pitt confirmed her top register talents as the aristocratic patron; Nicholas Sharratt excelled in Ernesto’s Act II aria; Nicholas Merryweather, a memorable Bardolph in Bampton’s recent production of Salieri’s Falstaff, brought an astonishing range of gesture to his attractively toned fop, Villotto. Russian-born Ilona Domnich sings in clearer English than many a native speaker. The special bonus was tenor Brian Parsons in the role of Masino, the fisherman – an object lesson in how to pitch, project and moderate vibrato; rising young singers could learn much from this seasoned teacher about how to conserve their voices intelligently.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

Articles

Fidelity and fishing: La vera costanza

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Fidelity and fishing: La vera costanza

There can be few other composers of the first order whose operas have been so drastically neglected as Haydn. Between 1753 and 1791 he wrote some 17 major dramatic works (of which a few are completely or partly lost) and five others to accompany marionette shows; yet beyond the enthusiasms of a tiny number of specialist festivals not a single opera could be claimed to be a current repertory favourite, in marked distinction, of course, to those of Mozart. In this country, were it not for the enlightened planning of Garsington Opera between 1991 and 1997, and the Bartoli-starring performance of his final stage work, L’anima del filosofo at Covent Garden in 2001, there would be little British acquaintance with his operas. Indeed, as concert-planners have learned to their peril, the music of Haydn generally is not always a box-office draw, the Creation aside, and yet it does not need especial depth of musical knowledge to recognise his symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets and trios as works of the greatest skill and intensity. Is it that Haydn was simply too prolific, that the popular image of ‘papa’ Haydn is just too domestic to convince audiences of his sublime greatness?

This modern neglect of his operas may be linked to the original circumstances of the works’ commissions and circulation. Haydn’s employment as a theatrical composer was almost exclusively private and aristocratic, primarily as Vice- and then Kapellmeister for the great prince Nicolaus Esterháza at his eponymous country estate, who built two opera houses which were both opened with operas by Haydn. Here the greatest figures in Austrian society were lavishly entertained, above all the formidable Empress Maria Theresa who enjoyed L’infedeltà delusa so much in 1773 that she remarked (according to reputation) “when I want to see good opera, I go to the country”. At Esterháza, Haydn was in charge of a punishing schedule of productions by the leading composers of the day – Anfossi, Cimarosa, Gluck, Paisiello, Piccinni and Sarti: in 1786 he mounted 125 performances of 17 different productions. Ten of his own works were composed for this extraordinary theatrical venue. But – unlike several of Mozart’s masterpieces – Haydn’s operas did not usually travel to the great urban theatres; indeed, the composer himself inhibited their dissemination, refusing to send an opera to Prague in 1787 with the comment that “all my operas are too closely tied to our personnel (at Esterháza in Hungary) and moreover would never produce the effect that I calculated according to local conditions” (whilst ruefully noting that “scarcely any man can brook comparison with the great Mozart”).

Many scholars have pointed out that Haydn was not blessed with the same theatrical sense as Mozart who in his maturity was increasingly particular about the quality of his libretti and was fortunate enough to work with one of the greatest geniuses of eighteenth-century theatre, Lorenzo da Ponte. True, three of Haydn’s works are settings of Goldoni and one (L’isola disabitata) of Metastasio, but the other texts of Coltellini, Friberth, Puttini, Lorenzi and Porta have weaknesses of structure and poetry which Haydn did not apparently seek to remedy. Esterháza employed no court poet with whom Haydn might have thrashed out theatrical issues, and several of his libretti were already 20 years old when he set them. Despite being himself primarily a singer (as a treble, he may have narrowly escaped becoming a castrato) his attitude to operatic composition was so gloriously instrumental that the grander structures of dramaturgical architecture and pacing possibly eluded him. The perfunctory third act of La vera costanza, coming after a long and powerful second act finale, is a case in point. His operas may often appear to be a sequence of individual numbers rather than organised and coherently-paced scenes (although the same might be argued for one of the most stage-conscious of composers, Handel).

But what glorious music Haydn’s individual operatic numbers contain! Whilst some arias may benefit, on stage at least, from a little pruning of repetitive passages, nearly every one brings unique delights of melody, harmonic richness, rhythmic vitality and orchestral colour which place them on a level far above equivalents by most of Haydn’s contemporaries. There is rarely anything commonplace about his ideas and effects: his boundless wit and a preparedness to take risks provide his music with a remarkable edge and a sense of the unexpected. Characterisation is confident, and his word-painting consummate.

In La vera costanza, Haydn's romantic comedy set picturesquely amongst the cottages of a fishing village, these characteristics are amply demonstrated in Count Errico's bombastic Act 1aria with its preceding accompanied recitative (Mira il campo… : "Imagine you're in the camp"). As there were no trumpets in the orchestra at Esterháza, Haydn scores the number for fanfares of horns, accompanied by copious drumrolls and the military sound of woodwind. Expressing Errico's erratic character the music veers alarmingly between tempi (from presto to adagio) and idioms, as he likens the wooing of a woman to the processes of a battle campaign; the final C minor presto is a marvellous depiction of his internal pain – "I must be quite demented" – set to insistent syncopations and a richly chromatic intensity.

Villotto, the hapless subject of Errico’s picturesque advice-giving, quotes from this aria early in the magnificent Act I finale which extends through 15 minutes of music. Haydn here develops a typical feature of the opera buffa convention with a bravura and confidence which few others can equal. As throughout his works, the insistent rhythmic patterns with their colourful variety create a range of moods which are immediately comprehensible. The opening section, with alternating solos for Rosina, Masino and Villotto, may repeat the same melodic motifs but each is coloured differently to indicate the psychological separation of the characters, until they join in a brief shared trio of confusion and dismay. The Baroness and Ernesto share a lilting andante duet in 6/8, the melody of which is subsequently transformed by Rosina into the expressive minor key. Lisetta’s running entrance introduces a staccato presto, whose melodic motifs reappear in the concerted septet which eventually ends the act in a typically buffa cliff-hanger of emotional and exhausting panic. But between these two frantic sections is an intense lyrical duet for Rosina and Errico, set against a delicate and affecting ostinato with expressive woodwind counterpoint: momentary reconciliation is roughly interrupted when the Baroness distracts her wayward nephew with a portrait of an ‘alternative’ bride. Haydn handles these musical and emotional shifts with dexterous skill, building and relaxing tension, and introducing contrasted groupings of characters to create a dramatic intensity certainly equal to the subsequent masterpieces of Mozart.

La vera costanza has had a chequered history. Composed during the latter part of 1778, it was first performed at Esterháza on 25 April 1779; Haydn used a shortened libretto by Francesco Puttini which had already been set by Pasquale Anfossi in Rome in 1776. Andrea Totti, who sang the role of Count Errico in the Anfossi version in Venice later that year, also created the equivalent in the Haydn rewrite at Esterháza. Little is known however of the 1779 version: the score and parts were destroyed in the fire which burnt down the Esterháza opera house later the same year. A decision to revive the work in April 1785 (with two of the original singers) led to the problematic task of reconstruction based on memory and whatever other materials and sketches survived. The later version (but presumably not the original) actually used an aria from the Anfossi opera, for Errico in Act 2 (Ah non m’iganno: "Ah, if I'm not mistaken"). Nevertheless, it was more widely performed than other operas by Haydn, and was translated and adapted, sometimes quite drastically, appearing as Der flatterhafte Liebhaber in Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna, and as Laurette in Paris.

It is undoubtedly a strange story which begs many questions, but is symptomatic of a new genre of ‘realist’ (as opposed to classical or mythological works) comedies which bring together low and aristocratic characters usually at the (revolutionary) expense of the latter – Beaumarchais’s scandalous work set by Mozart as Le nozze di Figaro being the most notable. But more significantly, the plot centres around a passionate and patient heroine demonstrating that this belongs to the type sentimental romanticism exemplified by Piccinni’s La Cecchina and Paisiello’s Nina (performed at Bampton in 1999). Like the Countess in Figaro (another Rosina, and an orphan), the fishergirl Rosina perseveres in her marital devotion and fidelity, despite the abuses and jealousies of an inconsiderate husband. As with Richardson’s Pamela, Rosina is in effect an enlightenment saint, and her constant character and morality provide this fast-moving comedy with a pathos and seriousness which underpins it as a work of drama. Indeed, it is not inappropriate that La vera costanza shares its appellation, dramma giocoso, with that greatest of ‘serious’ comedies, Mozart’s Don Giovanni.


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