At one time Franz Josef Haydn had the best and worst job in the world. From his earliest youth he had found his way into the employ of the Eszterhazy family. Once he settled in, and with the exception of the rare argument, this arrangement (1761-1802) continued into his final retirement from ill health. He started with Prince Paul Anton (Pal Antal 1711-1762) first as assistant Kapellemeister and then the top post. But after that patron’s death his real compositional life began.
Haydn was, as one historian put it, ‘inherited" by Nikolaus I (1714-1790), later to be known as "the Magnificent," in no small part for his continued and generous - if eccentric - support of Haydn. Nikolaus' enthusiastic support would continue until the prince’s death in 1790, a death that freed the aging Haydn to travel to his great fame in London. As the final of the Haydn Eszterhazas (Prince Antal 1738-1794) disbanded the musical ensembles, it allowed Haydn to work at his leisure , yielding his final great masses.
The good news was that Haydn would never know the anxiety of want, a place to live, or favorable conditions for work. It was said that usually there were more people in the orchestra (13-23 instrumentalist) than in the audience at the "private" Eszterhazy performances. These performances include not only chamber works, but the ceaseless flow of masterworks from Op.20 on to the luminous Op.76 and over 100 symphonies. This latter form was apparently something Nikolaus loved, but not so much the quartets; his passion was opera.
Ironically, aside from the prince's inexplicable love of the baryton for which Haydn wrote 126 works, he also didn’t like traveling to Vienna; so one of the greatest musicians of all time would spend much of his creative life in the middle of nowhere. Haydn would later say that "since I was alone, I was forced to become original," but for the opera this was problematic.
In the instrumental works Haydn was sui generis (of his own kind, unique) and supreme. However, opera is another matter. Collaboration, contact with librettists, study of the evolving international styles, conversations and study of singers, the progress of mise-en-scene and dramaturgy. All of this, which Leopold Mozart saw to in Mozart’s superb education, was denied Haydn. All his life, Haydn would praise the younger man’s operas to the sky, but as usual Haydn was far too modest. In spite of all these disadvantages, in time he still excelled.
At the end of ten very intense years, Nikolaus I had underwritten Haydn’s selection, production and composition of the form in a private opera house. Haydn was thereby exposed to hundreds of operas and in his final phase of these activities a curious form had been born, the Ezsterhaza Opera. For the 250th anniversary, finally, this body of work could be heard with an excellent cast recorded by Philips. Three came in for special praise: "Il Mondo della Luna," "La fedelta Primiata" and "Orlando Paladino."
"Orlando Paladino" gives us the much utilized figure of the mad knight Orlando, used to great effect by both Handel and Vivaldi. In Haydn’s version, crossing countries and oceans, Orlando will not relent in his pursuit of Angelica, Queen of Cathay. She tries to tell him that she already loves Medoro, but the knight will not accept rejection. Finally, in desperation, the Queen seeks the assistance of a sorceress, Alcina. Only with the help of magic and beings from the underworld are they all finally freed from Orlando’s obsession.
Angelica mio ben, Mio sol, mia vita,
Angelica, my love, My sun, my life,
Magic, devils and a man who won't take "No!" for an answer in Haydn's opera "Orlando Paladino." This comic opera closes the 2012 Saturday at the Opera season. Prepare for the return of the MET December 8 at noon on KPAC and KTXI.