Opera: The consolations of philosophy

Haydn's Orfeo Queen Elizabeth Hall, SBC, London
Imagine the legal furore if a promoter scuppered an Andrew Lloyd Weber or Harrison Birtwistle stage commission after the composer had completed his side of the bargain. Haydn apparently suffered a similar fate with precious little fuss, moving straight on to composing his first set of "London" symphonies. For, although his L'anima del filosofo (The Spirit of the Philosopher), commonly known by its alternative title of Orfeo ed Euridice, was completed early in 1791, it had to wait until the 1951 Maggio Musicale in Florence for its stage premiere, in a production starring Maria Callas and Boris Christoff.

Thursday's concert performance, part of the London Philharmonic's on- going Haydn Festival, proved the outstanding musical worth of Haydn's Orfeo, while highlighting its dramatic shortcomings. Cast, conductor and band can hardly be held responsible, however, for the accretions applied to the Orpheus myth (familiar from the works of Monteverdi and Gluck) by Haydn's librettist, Badini. Halfway through, a sibyl tells the legendary singer that his only hope of restoring Eurydice to life is to trust in the power of philosophy, a proven shield against the torments of Hades. Haydn rescues the scene with a beguiling coloratura aria that makes the strongest possible case for the consolation of philosophy, delivered here by Claron McFadden with abundant personality and the confidence of complete technical surety. I could have done without the distant accompaniment of steam-hammers at work in Act 3, perhaps preparing the way for Orpheus' descent to the Underworld (but, more prosaically, part of the Jubilee Line extension).

Frieder Bernius, not the most gainly of baton-wielders but one with a convincing grasp of the score, extracted stylish if not blemish free playing from a chamber-sized LPO and alert contributions from London Voices, above all highlighting the work's colour and the splendour of Haydn's choral writing. At times Bernius pressed ahead without the unanimous support of his singers, sweeping Eurydice along in her first aria, undermining its tenderness and testing Christiane Oelze's otherwise immaculate coloratura to the limits. Although lacking the mezzo qualities necessary to enrich the lower reaches of her music, Oelze balanced the vocal equation with radiant, beautifully shaded singing above the stave and a profoundly moving mezza voce treatment of the heroine's departing aria.

Orpheus' response to Eurydice's death summoned a wonderfully refined demonstration of bel canto from Kurt Streit, who husbanded the resources of his voice to reveal its winning qualities of projection and unmannered expression. His natural legato and breath control were in place for his demanding first aria, "Rendete a questo seno", with messa di voce shading and clear diction adding to its sheer seductiveness.

The role of Creonte, well enough sung by William Dazeley, calls out for a greater degree of emotional involvement than it received here, not of the woe-is-me variety but certainly more compassionate in kind; likewise, the entire cast, with the exception of McFadden, appeared unwilling to complement their fine singing with simple physical gestures, sideways glances or even the slightest hint that Haydn's work was intended for the stage and not the concert hall.

Repeat performance: 7pm Tuesday QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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