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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): Il ritorno di Tobia, oratorio in 2 parts (H XXI,1)

Roberta Invernizzi, Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; Ann Hallenberg, contralto; Anders J. Dahlin, tenor; Nikolay Borchev, bass
VokalEnsemble Köln; Cappella Augustina
Dir.: Andreas Spering

rec: September 2006, Cologne, Studio Deutschlandfunk
Naxos - 8.570300-02 (3 CDs) (© 2007) (2.49'04")

The oratorio was one of the most prominent genres of vocal music in the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular Italian composers produced a large number of them, and these were frequently performed at the court in Vienna, where they were especially appreciated. This preference lasted until the last quarter of the 18th century. It can be hardly surprising that Haydn's oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia was very well received when it was performed in Vienna in 1775. But at that time the public taste started to change. Only six years later an attempt to perform this oratorio again failed, as it was considered much too long. Haydn was asked to rework it, but his request to be paid for his efforts was rejected. The performance was cancelled with the argument that no singer was available to sing the role of Anna.

Haydn had written Il ritorno di Tobia at the request of the Vienna Tonkünstler Societät, to be performed at two benefit concerts for the financial support of widows and orphans of musicians. The story of Tobias was well-known and used by several composers. It is based on the apocryphal book of Tobias, but Haydn's librettist, Giovanni Gastone Boccherini - brother of the composer Luigi - concentrated on the end of the book, which tells about Tobias coming home from his adventures and curing his father of his blindness. In the first part we meet Tobias's parents, Tobit and Anna, who are eagerly awaiting the return of their son. Anna believes he is dead, and she bitterly opposes her husband's trust in God. But then she is proven wrong when Tobias returns. Not only that, he turns out to be married and presents his wife Sarah to his parents. He is also accompanied by a man, called Asaria, who in fact is the archangel Raphael in disguise. It is he who tells Tobit and Anna that Tobias has the power to cure Tobit's blindness. This is what the second part is about. Tobias uses the venom of a monster he has defeated to cure his father's eyes, but Tobit hardly can bear the light and says he prefers things as they were. At the advice of Asaria Sarah then ties a black cloth round Tobit's eyes, which is then loosened little by little. This way his eyes can get accustomed to the light. When Tobit, Anna, Tobias and Sarah want to give Asaria a large sum of money as he has in fact caused Tobit to see again and Tobias to return home safely, he reveals that he isn't human but the archangel Raphael, and then disappears in a cloud. Those who stay back bring praise to God, and are joined by the people.

There is little difference between this oratorio and the operas of Haydn's time. It starts with a Sinfonia in two sections, slow - fast. Then follows a sequence of - mostly accompanied - recitatives and arias, and the first part ends with a chorus. The second part again begins with a short instrumental introduction, which leads to another accompanied recitative of Anna, Sarah and Raphael, which is very much like an opera scene, in which the vocal sections are interspersed by instrumental sections. The oratorio closes with another chorus. The operatic character of Haydn's oratorio is also reflected by the stage directions in the score, like "leaves", "is about to leave" or "kneels down and kisses Tobit's hand". When Raphael disappears the score contains the remark: "A cloud descends from heaven, it covers him, and he ascends in it". The stage directions explained to the audience what they didn't see - the performances in 1775 were not staged - but what is necessary to understand the development of the story.

The music Haydn has written is very dramatic. The most theatrical character is Anna, who is torn between feelings of despair and of hope. Right at the start we see the conflict between Anna and Tobit, as Anna accuses her husband of dreaming and falsely hoping that God will bring Tobias home. She herself doesn't share his trust and believes her son is dead. Her mood is brilliantly depicted in her aria 'Sudò il guerriero', which is preceded by an accompanied recitative in which the different moods of Anna and Tobit are strongly illustrated by the orchestra. Anna's despair and anger are in sharp contrast with the unshakeable hope and faith of Tobit, which is expressed in his aria 'Ah, tu m'ascolta', in which his words of faith in God - "I love you, I believe in you, I hope on you" - are supported by powerful chords from the orchestra. The casting of the two characters is spot on. Ann Hallenberg gives a very strong and impressive portrayal of Anna, and expresses her diverse moods brilliantly. I think this could have been done with a little less vibrato, though. Nikolay Borchev gives a good account of the role of Tobit. He doesn't sound very authoritative and powerful, but that is exactly in line with the quiet and unflappable character of Tobit.

Most arias are virtuosic and rather long, again just like in the opera. Anna has some of the most demanding arias, but there are also virtuosic arias for Raphael (Come se ai voi parlasse), excellently sung by Roberta Invernizzi, and Sarah. In the latter's aria 'Non parmi esser fra gl'uomini' the orchestra plays a particularly important role: almost all wind instruments are used here, whereas the strings are reduced to playing pizzicato. Sophie Karthäuser sings this aria very well: her excellent breath control allows her to produce an astonishing slow messa di voce. In her role as a whole, though, I sometimes find her a little uninvolved, something I have noticed in earlier recordings as well.

I have the same problem with Anders Dahlin, who is rather lacklustre and bland in his recitatives. He has a beautiful and pleasant voice, in particular in the high register. But the lower register is underdeveloped, and that makes his aria 'Quel felice nocchier' a little unsatisfying. Much better is his first aria, 'Quanda mi dona un cenno', in which he expresses his love for Sarah. This aria is breathtakingly beautiful, and so is Anders Dahlin's performance. In general I have the feeling, though, that he makes the character of Tobias a little softer than one would expect someone to be who has defeated a monster.

The orchestra has a very important role of its own in this oratorio. Far from merely accompanying the singers it is used to express the moods of the characters and the events as they unfold. As a result there are strong contrasts in the orchestral part, in particular in the accompanied recitatives. Haydn has also effectively used the orchestra to characterise the arias. This explains the colourful scoring, with pairs of flutes, oboes, cors anglais, bassoons, trumpets and horns, plus strings, timpani and basso continuo. The Capella Augustina - whose members are unfortunately not mentioned in the booklet - give top-class performances here, and the wind players are especially impressive.

Apart from the choruses which close both parts of the oratorio, there are also two choruses in the middle of each part. These are the result of Haydn's reworking for the performance of 1781, which never took place. Although Christoph Spering has chosen to follow the first version of 1775, he considered these choruses too good not to be used. I can understand that, but I had preferred them to be added separately at the end of a disc, allowing the listeners to include them if desired. Coincidentally the additional chorus in part 1 is at the end of the first disc, but the chorus in part 2 is not. Even so, both choruses are splendid pieces, and so are the original choruses of the first performance. The VokalEnsemble Köln gives outstanding performances: powerful, but also transparent and well-articulated, as the fugal sections of the closing choruses testify.

This oratorio is not really forgotten, and has been recorded before. But it is far lesser known than Haydn's two later oratorios, Die Schöpfung and Die Jahreszeiten, which is totally unjustified. Il ritorno di Tobia is an engaging and enthralling piece of music, which interestingly shows some trademarks we know from the later oratorios. And this oratorio also suggests that Haydn was a very good opera composer, which his - still seldom recorded - operas confirm.

As far as the booklet is concerned, there are informative programme notes, and the lyrics are also printed. That isn't always the case with Naxos, as often one has to go to the Naxos website in order to download the lyrics. Unfortunately there is no English translation, and the Naxos website only has a German translation. I don't understand why no English translation is made available. I could't find any on the internet either.

Despite some minor reservations I wholeheartedly recommend this recording of what I consider one of Haydn's masterworks.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Cappella Augustana

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