When one thinks of Haydn, opera really isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the symphonies, the string quartets, even his oratorios you think of first, not his operas. And yet he wrote 15 of them. L’isola disabitata is the eleventh of the bunch, written for the Eszterházy court in 1779, and it was this opera The Norwegian Opera and Ballet (DNO) chose as their 2012/2013 season opener.

Amelie Aldenheim © Erik Berg
Amelie Aldenheim
© Erik Berg

The libretto is by Metastasio and concerns itself with the sisters Costanza and Silvia, Costanza’s husband Gernando and his friend Enrico. Costanza believes that her husband abandoned her and her then infant sister Silvia on a deserted island 13 years ago, while in fact he was captured by pirates. 13 years later, Costanza and Silvia still live on the island, Costanza still bitter and rejected and Silvia blissfully unaware of the world outside the island. When Gernando, freed from pirate captivity, returns to the island, he and his friend Enrico try to find Costanza. The characters of Enrico and Silvia also meet and subsequently fall in love.

The work is short; about one and a half hours. The overture shows Haydn at his ‘Sturm und Drang’-iest, with a dramatic, tempestuous main theme. The opera proper is dominated by long stretches of accompanied recitative; there are arias, but they are few and far between. Haydn’s vocal writing is largely without any embellishments like long coloratura runs, and instead emphasises on melody. One number that is particularly of note is the finale, an extended quartet rondo with virtuoso solos for violin, cello, flute and bassoon, each instrument following one of the singers.

This production (which incidentally marked the opera’s Norwegian premiere and the first Haydn opera DNO has ever done) was set in modern times. The stage was minimally decorated, with only a few palms and some tufts of grass in the sand. The opera was staged in front of the stage curtain, something that shrank the stage considerably. This more intimate stage worked well, as it is a small opera with a small cast.

The two main characters of Costanza and Silvia were sung by mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Gillebo and soprano Amelie Aldenheim, respectively. The two characters are diametrically opposed; Costanza being in a state of almost never-ending, almost forced depression and seclusion, and Silvia ever cheerful and happy. This was very plainly shown in the performance: Costanza wore all black, even a black umbrella that was used to show her seclusion from the rest of the world, whereas Silvia wore more colourful and childish clothes: Dungaree shorts paired with a hot pink dress and a rather fetching green tutu-like skirt. Her hair was also set up in a multitude of pig-tails.

Gillebo’s beautiful, bright, expressive voice was well suited for the stubborn tragedienne. While the part didn't offer many opportunities for a nuanced performance, Gillebo did very well, especially in the last Act. Amelie Aldenheim’s Silvia was a completely different being. She was most effective as the ever happy sister. Her bright soprano is pleasant to listen to, although it turns somewhat shrill at times. There were also some intonation issues, especially in the part's many large leaps, although this was largely made up for by her engaging performance. A key feature of the production was Silvia's sexual awakening. It starts after she first lays eyes on Enrico, and escalates when she talks to him for the first time. In the opera, this was shown by Silvia removing more and more of her clothes (including the hair ties), until only a pink dress remained, her transformation into a grown woman, or at least a sexual being, complete.

The male love interests were tenor Simon Bode and baritone Kevin Greenlaw as Gernando and Enrico, respectively. As characters, they were less defined than the two sisters, but Bode’s portrayal of Gernando as a loving husband, intent on finding his wife after all those years, dead or alive contrasted with Greenlaw’s Enrico, someone who admires his friend, but ultimately is only tagging along worked very well. Bode’s bright, pleasant tenor was very well suited for the part, and he showed a great understanding of the style both of the period and of the piece itself. Greenlaw’s voice was powerful, especially the top notes which were thrilling.

The orchestra was The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. They played very well, and gave a thrilling account of the overture. There were moments, especially during the very high solo passages in the final quartet where the soloists were a tad pitchy, but generally the orchestra played very well. They were also an active part of the performance itself, interacting with the performers and even handing them a bottle of celebratory champagne before the finale. An amusing touch was the orchestra dressed in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses in order to convey the tropical mood of the evening.

All in all, it was a charming performance of a charming little piece. Maybe not the greatest of Haydn’s operas, but when lovingly presented, L'isola disabitata can become a little gem.