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L’Isola disabitata

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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While Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was being revived upstairs on the main stage, as the focal point of the Royal Opera’s Meet the Jette Parker Young Artists Week, Haydn’s unusual short opera (actually an ‘azione teatrale’), L’Isola disabitata opened in the Linbury Studio (with two further performances, 28 and 29 October).

Using not only singers from the Jette Parker scheme, but also young director Rodula Gaitanou and young conductor Volker Krafft, this is a fantastic endorsement of the quality of the scheme (and, of course, the artists on it), confidently filling the Linbury Studio with fantastic support from the Southbank Sinfonia, who played Haydn with joyous aplomb.

At first, I admit, I was not so sure. The Linbury’s stage is laid bare – tabs removed and sightlines to the back and side walls and the set – with its large concrete circle dominating the stage, looked as if a bomb had hit it, with broken rocks strewn around the side. The central circle has slanting poles of various lengths pointing upwards – for all the world as if Sputnik had crashed leaving some of its spikes still sticking heavenwards. As we enter, the two sisters Constanza (Elizabeth Meister) and younger Silvia (Anna Devin) hobble slowly across the desolate (let alone abandoned) island landscape, during the overture slowly marking the final three years (of 13) they’ve been left on the island.

Constanza is convinced of the treachery of her husband Gernando, who seemingly left the girls on the island so many years ago. She is just finishing an inscription presaging her suicide with a plea to those that might in future find her message to take revenge. Silvia, just a girl when they were left on the island, has grown up learning only hatred for men.

Unknown to the sisters, Gernando (who was actually abducted by pirates and enslaved) and his friend Enrico (who he helped escape from their servitude) have returned to the island in search of Constanza and Silvia. Dressed in post-nuclear holocaust protection, Enrico complete with Geiger counter, the two lads creep cautiously round the island eventually shedding their protective layers. Although Meister and Devin are still visible, beyond the concrete circle, we have to believe they can’t see each other until the plot demands. And even though the audience get an interval, our gallant quartet continue their own independent creeping throughout the break in the musical performance.

Whilst ostensibly the main plot is about Gernando (Steven Ebel) and Constanza, the most involving characters are Silvia who spies Enrico (Daniel Grice) first (and in this production all too gleefully dons his biohazard gear, even wearing his boots on her head). Their mutual surprise turning to admiration was wittily managed and made Haydn’s already infectious music even more scintillating. As Volker Krafft’s note pointed out, Haydn wrote Silvia for Luigia Polzelli, with whom he was having an affair, perhaps explaining the knowing sparkle of humanity in her and Enrico’s music, charmingly fleshed out by Devin and Grice’s winning performances.

Even if Constanza and Gernando’s parts are more emotionally wrought, and Haydn leaves perhaps the most telling moment of their finding each other alive unaccompanied (director Gaitanou compensating with lighting designer Simon Corder’s help with a bright flash of recognition), Meister and Ebel impressed with their secure handling of much slow music.

Only recently added to the Haydn canon, following HC Robbins-Landon’s landmark edition prepared for Dorati’s 1970s recording, this performance was performed in G Henle Verlag & Barenreiter’s Urtext edition (2009), by arrangement with Faber Music. Haydn’s later additions of trumpet (for horns) and timpani were left out of this performance which sounded wonderful in the Linbury Studio, especially in the accompanied recitatives, Haydn unusually jettisoning the normal continuo convention of the time.

If you can’t get to it (and, not surprisingly, it is sold out), hope that ROH2 and the Jette Parker scheme plan an early revival.

-Nick Breckenfield


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