The weeks preceding this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra performances of Haydn’s The Seasons must have been a trial for the orchestra’s artistic staff. First, the announced baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson, cancelled for health reasons. He was replaced with a second artist. Then, on Thursday, a few hours before the opening performance, both the replacement baritone and the tenor soloist Maximilian Schmitt were taken ill. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst cobbled together a “highlights” version of the Haydn’s 1801 choral masterpiece, using many of the choruses, and some of the arias, with the brilliant South African soprano Golda Schultz, the only soloist not to succumb to illness. 

Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroiani

On Saturday evening I heard a complete performance, with Golda Schultz, tenor Maximilian Schmitt, who had recovered, and a third baritone, Alexander Dobson, who took over the part on fewer than 48 hours’ notice. The concert was a fine success, especially due to the efforts of the excellent Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

The Seasons is a pictorial description of the four seasons, but is also an allegory of the cycle of life and death, with a libretto by Gottfried van Swieten. The soprano, tenor and baritone soloists provide both commentary on the action as well as play roles in the story. Haydn’s musical organization follows the rules of Baroque oratorio, with recitatives accompanied by fortepiano and cello continuo; accompanied recitatives that transform into arias, solo ensembles, and choruses. Despite the fact that Haydn composed The Seasons simultaneously in German and English versions, the Clevelanders performed it in German. But the texts and translations were not provided. There were only summary English translations projected – in a pale, barely readable font – above the stage. The text is not great poetry, but it would have been helpful to see it printed in the program. During the course of an aria or chorus, phrases of text often repeated multiple times, sometimes not in the same order. In a printed text it would be possible to discern the context of text repetitions. In this performance, the supertitle screen went blank after the first statement of the German text, which made subsequent sung text confusing.

Golda Schultz is earning a reputation as an up-and-coming opera star, and she did not disappoint here. Her tone was pure and shining, and she managed Haydn’s many high notes with floating ease; her coloratura was cleanly articulated. Despite the lyric nature of her voice, she was never over-balanced by the orchestra. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt likewise was well-suited to his role; he matched Schultz in lyrical temperament and vocal timbre. Baritone Alexander Dobson did yeoman’s service on his short-notice assignment. He probably had little-to-no rehearsal with the orchestra and chorus; his contributions were competent, and he showed a robust voice. But his singing was very careful and often hesitant. He had not yet made the text wholly his own, but he made the best of a very challenging situation.

Golda Schultz
© Roger Mastroiani

The real stars of the performance were the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. This was the best the chorus has sounded in several seasons. The sound was focused and balanced, intonation was excellent, rhythms were precise, and choral diction was usually clear. In Haydn’s great fugal passages, the counterpoint was clean. The group was capable of moving from the quietest passages to huge choral outbursts. Acting director Lisa Wong has made clear, substantive improvements.

The Cleveland Orchestra completed this satisfying evening with many thrilling moments, including numerous incidental solos, and, especially, the hunting horn fanfares in the Autumn segment. Fortepianist Joela Jones was a subtle and responsive continuo accompanist. Holding the whole apparatus together was the tireless Franz Welser-Möst, who clearly revelled in the outcome.