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Haydn The Return of Tobias

Ann Hallenberg alto
Lucy Crowe soprano
Rachel Nicholls soprano`
Christopher Maltman baritone
Andrew Kennedy tenor

Joyful Company of Singers
& OAE/ Sir Roger Norrington

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
10 February 2009

Immensely popular when premiered by 180 musicians in 1775, Il ritorno di Tobia soon fell out of favour and into prolonged oblivion. In his introductory talk Richard Wigmore warned us to get into a proper, leisurely Metastasian mood for Haydn's treatment of Giovanni Boccherini's less than inspired libretto; he also told us that it is not far from the style of Haydn's still problematic operas. He hoped that this current Haydn Year will bring some revaluations, not the least Il ritorno di Tobia.

The story, culminating in Tobit being cured of blindness by his son with divine assistance, gains pace in the second half; for most of this oratorio one has reflections in accompanied recitative (beautifully orchestrated) and virtuoso arias. Haydn pruned its excessive length for an 1784 revival and added a couple of choruses (having in mind Handel's oratorios) and this was the version presented by Roger Norrington, still nearly three hours including one interval.

The soloists were cast from strength. Tobit and his son were well characterised, especially in the long scene about the removal of Tobit's cataracts, the light unbearable to him at first, but with divine help and gradual acclimatisation under the guidance of Raphael/Azaria finally successful to general rejoicing. Rachel Nicolls, depicting the male angel, has a piercing quality in her high notes which is a little disturbing, but perhaps acceptable for this character. The Swedish alto opera star Ann Hallenberg as Tobit's wife Anna, and our Lucy Crowe as Tobias's wife Sara (whose previous seven husbands had been slaughtered by a lustful demon) gave especial pleasure.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's loyal following ensured a full house, the audience's anticipation fully met by a superb, involving performance. There are numerous felicities in the accompaniments, those for the recits as well as in the arias, and the Joyful Singers made their mark at climactic moments, the whole event directed with aplomb by Roger Norrington and cheered to the rafters at the end.

The performance will be broadcast on 6 July, and meanwhile there is an acclaimed CD recording to be had, which Richard Wigmore, who used an earlier one, did not mention in his illustrated talk.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also Hilary Finch in The Times - - "This ludicrously neglected oratorio is really sacred opera, with a power to move that can equal Mozart in Idomeneo or La clemenza di Tito"

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Il Ritorno di Tobia (1775)
Invernizzi, Karthäuser, Hallenberg, Dahlin, Borchev Vokal Ensemble Köln, Capella Augustina/Andreas Spering rec. Sendesaal des Funkauses Köln, Germany, September 2006
[NAXOS 8.570300-02]

This newish (2006) recording of Il ritorno di Tobia has been gathered by Naxos together with Die SchopfÜng and Die Jahreszeiten in a 7-hour boxed set [8.507008].

The discs by Cologne specialist forces are gratifyingly excellent, with fine singing by all involved and well balanced orchestral accompaniment under the admirable Andreas Spering, who had previously been in charge of their recordings of the best known Haydn oratorios.

Their existence at bargain price makes it seem unlikely that the Norrington/OAE performance of Il ritorno di Tobia will make it to the recording studios?

Naxos has provided texts of all of them in the orginal languages only, but sadly without English translations even on line - quite common for Naxos. [A colleague has howeve located on line a translation of The Seasons © Neil Jenkins.]

That is particularly regrettable in the case of Tobia, which is an opera in all but name, which the Naxos liner note makes abundantly clear, as did too Hilary Finch in her Times review quoted above. The libretto has stage directions, e.g. that after her first aria Anna departs - parte - leaving alone on stage the blind Tobit, who grumbles "Anna, listen please! - Anna hears me not!", a poignant dramatic moment, of which there are several.

There are complaints from some critics that Il ritorno di Tobia, which fell into neglect after initial success, is too long and too slow in telling its story; but CDs give the opportunity to take such a work in parts; the Naxos CDs (3) make better divisions than the two-part presentation at South Bank Centre.

There is no problem for those of us who were there; OAE provided full bi-lingual texts, which really are indispensable. It would be a real service if OAE might put those (apparently not copyright) on line for listeners to the Juyl broadcast and purchasers of this Cologne recording?

I wonder if any of the College/Academy opera departments has thought of mounting a fully staged English production of The Return of Tobias? That would be a worthy project for the Haydn bicentenary celebrations.

Peter Grahame Woolf