L'Anima del Filosofa, Royal Opera House, London

Haydn? It certainly should be
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The Independent Culture

If you're the kind of opera fan who is so thrilled to be in the presence of your favourite artiste that you'll forgive any holes in the whole, then you might enjoy Covent Garden's production of Haydn's L'Anima del Filosofo. You might be thrilled by a few minutes of sparkling fioritura and a couple of delicious mezzo piano phrases. You may even weep from pleasure, shout "Brava!" and stand to applaud. But if you're a card-carrying fan of Cecilia Bartoli, you probably bought your ticket months ago.

If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who feels that a good production is one with a cohesive cast, a coherent aesthetic, characterful music-making and an interesting argument, read on. I'm about to save you some money, though it's hard to know where to start with Jürgen Flimm's daffy, disorganised production.

Should I begin with the Kenny Everett-style giant hands on sticks, or the funeral procession that sees the chorus turn a very tight circle while balancing a prone Bartoli on several sticks? Or how about Pluto in Alice Cooper make-up and a two-foot high stove-pipe hat? Or the perfume advertisement back-drop projection of buttocks and sacrum as an undulating landscape? Or Hades as a 1980s nightclub? Or the shower-scene? (Less exciting than it might sound, especially as the tap kept dripping through later scenes.) Or the eight male dancers with nothing but mud and a chamois leather to cover their tight little tushies? What does this have to do with Haydn? Who knows, but set designer George Tsypin was recently commissioned to do the MTV awards ceremony and it showed.

Of course, none of this would have mattered so much had there been a cohesive energy and style to the acting. As Orfeo, Roberto Sacca is doubly unmanned: first by the uninspiringly low tessitura that Haydn gives him, and secondly by having to play support to his Euridice. Small wonder the erotic charge between them is minimal. Bartoli gives a one-dimensionally tragic Euridice (in full meringue gear) and a one-dimensionally perky Genio (in the kind of jolly trouser suit you might imagine Sandi Toksvig would wear to a wedding in the Shires). Euridice's arias are delivered in a breathily beautiful swoosh of sound, Genio's in a snarl of teeth-baring brightness. All of the notes are in place – some of them remarkably lovely – but, on the evidence of L'Anima, Bartoli's operatic acting falls far short of the complex characterisation she brings to her recital repertoire. Only Gerald Finley (Creonte) portrays a real character – clever, absorbed, reactive, believable – but then Haydn's baritone arias always outshine his writing for other voices, and Finley is – in my book, anyway – the real star.

Making strong theatre out of a little-known 18th-century opera is not easy work. Glyndebourne and Drottningholm have done it. So have the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Göttingen, Halle and Innsbruck, and their work has carved a place for forgotten repertoire of the Baroque and Classical periods. But no production has worked through simply throwing a big name at it. Successful shows – whether modernised or "authentic" – reflect a thorough understanding of each work's particular historical and cultural conventions. Once that is in place, it doesn't matter if you stick your actors in jump-suits or farthingales, have them minuet or lindy-hop, providing the relationships between the characters and their situations remain true. Alas, in L'Anima there is no evidence of this understanding. The sad thing about this whole messy exercise is that it may put Covent Garden off from experimenting further at the earlier end of the repertoire. Stylish and stylistic playing of early repertoire can be achieved on modern instruments, and the ROH orchestra coped well with short-bowing and minimum vibrato. That Christopher Hogwood's conducting had an air of defeat about it from the start of the overture was understandable. He knew what was coming.


'L'Anima del Filosofo', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 31 October