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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN: Ritorno di Tobia (Il)
Although Haydn’s place in the history of the oratorio has been secured by his great vocal masterpieces The Creation (Naxos 8.557380-81) and The Seasons (8.557600-01), his first oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias), is among the better-kept secrets of music history. The Italian libretto deals with the return of Tobias and the curing of his blind father, an exceptionally popular story in eighteenth century Vienna. With its vivid portrayal of the protagonists’ emotional turmoil, achieved largely through wide-ranging arias of great virtuosity, Il ritorno di Tobia is a work of considerable beauty and dramatic impact. This recording includes the two magnificent choruses Ah gran Dio! and Svanisce in un momento written for a performance of Tobia in 1784.
By Johan van Veen
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.
By Richard Wigmore
The return of Haydn’s early Italian oratorio
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Il ritorno di Tobia
Oratorio in Two Parts, Hob. XXI/1 (1775/1784)
Text by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini
Raffaelle – Roberta Invernizzi (soprano)
Sara – Sophie Karthäuser (soprano)
Anna – Ann Hallenberg (alto)
Tobia – Anders J. Dahlin (tenor)
Tobit – Nikolay Borchev (bass)
VokalEnsemble Köln (Chorus Master: Max Ciolek)
Joseph Haydn's place in the history of the oratorio has been secured by his great vocal masterpieces The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), which are a considerable contribution to the genre and are well enough known. His first appearance, however, on the Mount Parnassus of oratorio a good quarter of a century beforehand is among the better-kept secrets of music history. Unlike The Creation and the almost equally popular The Seasons, both of which are still widely performed nowadays, Tobia did not establish itself in the repertoire following the first performance in 1775.
Il ritorno di Tobia had a promising enough start: in April 1775 Haydn directed the first two performances of his work, written for the Vienna Tonkünstler-Societät, at two benefit concerts "for the upkeep of their widows and orphans", which brought the society a remarkable financial profit of 1712 gulden together with considerable artistic success for the composer. On 6 April 1775 the Viennese Realzeitung reported that in this work, the "famous kapellmeister Hayden" had "shown the ability for which he is famous to best advantage once more. Expression, Nature and Art were so skilfully finely combined throughout his work that the audience was compelled to enjoy and wonder at all of these. His choruses in particular glowed with a flame that could only be compared with Handel. In short, the entire uncommonly numerous audience was delighted."
This success was no mere accident: Haydn had tailored his first oratorio as much as possible to suit Viennese taste. At this time Vienna was, to a certain extent, the bastion of the Italian oratorio north of the Alps. Such was the extent of preference for the Italian language here that performances of works, such as those of George Frideric Handel mentioned in the review, were not given in the original English or German translation, but in Italian. An Italian libretto was therefore indispensable, and for his subject matter, Haydn had chosen the exceptionally popular story of blind Tobias: in the eighteenth century, the Old Testament Book of Tobias was found everywhere, in painting, sculpture, literature and music; in Vienna alone it had been set to music dozens of times.
This story was employed for the libretto in accordance with every rule of the classical Italian tradition by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, who plied his trade as poet to the court theatre in Vienna; he was a brother of the famous composer for the cello, Luigi Boccherini. First and foremost Boccherini reduced the number of characters involved: the parents Anna and Tobit (the father, originally also called 'Tobias', is renamed here to distinguish him from his son) find their place opposite their son Tobias and his wife Sarah; the only additional character is Tobias's travelling companion Asaria, who reveals himself as the Archangel Raphael at the end of the piece. The plot is also considerably curtailed so that the fourteen, at times, highly dramatic chapters of the extensive story of Tobias are reduced in Boccherini's version to his return from abroad and the curing of his blind father. We hear about Tobias's journey and the numerous adventures that he has to endure on it, as well as his joyful marriage to Sarah only from retrospective accounts. Whereas this paring down admittedly leads to a loss of dramatic opportunity, it does, however, allow for the Aristotelian principal of the unity of time, place and action: the parents waiting for Tobias, his return and the curing of the father can all, to a certain extent, be portrayed in 'real time'.
Haydn sets this model of classicism according to the form favoured at the time, whereby he allows the chorus to appear at the main points in the action as pillars within the framework at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the piece; apart from this, he uses the standard alternation of recitative and aria for the soloists for the most part. At the same time, the composer's avoidance of dramatic effects in the recitatives, which are mostly accompanied by the whole orchestra, allows greater flexibility in their descriptions of emotional turmoil and the forces of nature; the wide-ranging arias are of such virtuosity that Tobia places great demands on soloists to this day. For the first performance Haydn brought to Vienna his own singers from Prince Esterházy's opera company, for whom he had, so to speak, tailor-made the parts to a certain extent.
It is no wonder then that the first performance was a notable success. Within a short space of time copies of the score were circulating throughout Europe and Haydn himself counted the work among his most successful. It is also no surprise, however, that as early as 1781 a planned repeat performance in Vienna failed owing to the subsequent change in public taste; and besides this, as it took almost three hours to perform, the work was considered simply too long. The Tonkünstler-Societät therefore asked Haydn to shorten the work, something which was only practical and not uncommon in the music profession at the time. However, when the composer asked for 'tickets for a benefit concert or some other bonus payment for his trouble' as a countermove, he was refused. When it appeared that it would not be possible to find a soloist for the particularly demanding rôle of Anna, there was a reluctance to perform Tobia again, and so the fate of this work, rather too suited to the Viennese taste of the 1770s, was sealed.
Haydn, however, was after all an experienced man of the theatre who had earned his stripes at the Esterházys' opera house, and as such was perfectly capable of tackling the reworking of his Tobia in view of its difficulties. The parts of the Tonkünstler-Societät and Haydn's autograph testify to this in a variety of ways: Haydn himself made alterations in a number of places in his score to passages of secco recitative, which, being accompanied only by the continuo instrument, allow the singer greater freedom in which to be creative. On the other hand the orchestral material contains cuts in much of the extravagant coloratura, and also the repeated sections in the arias. Not only did this bring about the shortening of the work deemed necessary, it also reduced the technical demands of the arias significantly, and so made the rôles easier to cast. It is no longer possible to reconstruct beyond doubt when exactly and for which performance these alterations were made.
Only for the two supplementary choruses 'Ah gran Dio!'and 'Svanisce in un momento'has it been ascertained that they were written particularly for a repeat performance of Tobia in 1784. The insertion of these movements into the middle of the first and second parts respectively represents a loosening up of the original highly formal structure and serves to break up the constant alternation of recitative and aria; they are also a magnificent and valuable musical addition to the oratorio. This is made abundantly clear by Andreas Spering, who, while certainly abiding by the 'original version' of 1775 for his new recording of the work on principle, does not ignore these two gems of the choral repertoire, but integrates them at the points Haydn intended. This gives us the opportunity to admire all the treasures of a masterpiece of oratorio certainly forgotten during the nineteenth century, which makes its rediscovery in our time all the more worthwhile.
According to the wordbook for the first performance, the oratorio is set in Nineveh: "The scene of the action is the ground floor hall of Tobit's house with several doors, some leading to rooms above, others to the road." Even if the action is not set directly scene by scene, Il ritorno di Tobia still provides moments of striking theatricality. In matters of text setting, the Italianate oratorio of the eighteenth century followed the opera seria closely: this begins with the sequence of recitatives and arias and continues with the ways in which these formal elements are given shape. The recitative is characterized from the outset by dialogue and the dramatic structure imposed by the characters' immediate reactions to one other. This is not even altered by the fact that repeated events already bygone are brought back to life in the recitatives.
Following the sinfonia and an initial chorus of supplication 'Pietà d'un'infelice, afflitta genitrice' (Have pity on an unhappy, tormented mother, No. 1), we witness Tobit and Anna waiting longingly for the return of their son Tobias who has gone to the town of Rages to attend to business for his blind father. Anna is in despair: 'Né comparisce, oh Dio!'(He does not come, oh God!, No. 2a). In the simile aria 'Sudò il guerriero'(The warrior sweats, No. 2b) she reproaches her husband, saying that unlike the warrior, the seafarer and the farmer, the suffering he bears by trusting in God will bring him no reward. Tobit tries to console her: 'Deh modera il dolor' (Restrain thy grief, No. 3a). But he is not heard: because of his blindness, he has not noticed that his wife has gone. In his despair, he begins to pray: 'Ah tu m'ascolta, oh Dio'(Hear me, oh God, No. 3b).
This scene would be incomprehensible to the listener if the librettist Giovanni Gastone Boccherini had not expressly written Parte (She leaves) following Anna's aria 'Sudò il guerriero'. This type of remark is more typical of opera than oratorio, and in this scene it becomes particularly clear just how close to opera Joseph Haydn's Il ritorno di Tobia is and how seriously we must take this proximity. The action of the characters is also described in detail: we learn that blind Tobit is guided by two maidservants, and that Anna looks anxiously across the road into the distance while she waits for her son. There she catches sight of Tobias's travelling companion Asaria alone for the first time: 'Non è quello Azaria' (Is that not Asaria, No. 4a) and fears the worst: if Asaria returns alone, it can only mean that Tobias has suffered an accident. But Asaria, who is in fact the Archangel Gabriel in disguise, has good news: Tobias has slain a monster in the course of his journey along the Tigris and married his kinswoman Sarah. What is more, Asaria prophesies that Tobias will cure his father's blindness: 'Quel figlio a te sì caro' (That son, so dear to thee, No. 4b). Anna is now prepared to believe this promise: 'Che disse?' (What does he say?, No. 5a) and praises God for it: 'Ah gran Dio' (Great God, No. 5b). The chorus that follows (No. 5c) takes up the text of Anna's previous aria as well as its prominent wide leaps, a musical depiction of God's grandeur.
Haydn takes the opera as his model not only for the dialogical texture but also for the aria's structure. Thus, Tobias's aria 'Quando mi dona un cenno il labbro tuo soave' (When your sweet lips hint to me, No. 6b) is written in a modified da capo form characteristic of opera seria in the 1770s. There is an extant contemporary version of this aria with virtuoso embellishments. Performance practice was therefore similar in opera and oratorio in that singers were able to show their abilities in the best light. Finally, the principle of not writing two arias for the same protagonist in succession complies with the conventions of opera. Eventually Sarah introduces herself to the audience with her aria 'Del caro sposo son fra le mura'(I am in my dear husband's house, No. 7b).
Unlike the opera seria of the time, in which the involvement of the chorus is reserved for particularly festive types such as the Festa teatrale, in the Italianate oratorio both parts traditionally concluded with a chorus; usually the choir also played a part in the opening scene. Besides this, the inclusion of contrapuntal techniques is typical of oratorio, which Haydn makes use of in turn in the final chorus from the first part, 'Odi le nostre voci' (Hear our prayer, No. 9): he sets the Hebrews' plea 'Rendi a Tobit la luce, oh della luce Autor'(Give Tobit his sight again, oh Author of light) as a closing fugue, thereby giving voice to the many whose prayer this is.
In the second part of the oratorio we witness a conversation between Anna, Sarah and Raphael: 'Oh della santa fé stupendi effetti' (Oh the marvellous workings of blessed faith, No. 10a) as well as an apocalyptic promise from the Archangel: 'Come se a voi parlasse un messagier del Cielo' (As if to you a messenger from heaven would speak, No. 10b), illustrated with rushing figures in the accompaniment. Haydn gives emphasis to Sarah's aria 'Non parmi esser fra gl'uomini' (I appear not to be amongst mankind, No. 11b) by its rich scoring for winds – pairs of flutes, oboes, cors anglais, bassoons and horns – accompanied for the time being only by muted pizzicato strings. Following another simile aria, Tobias's 'Quel felice nocchier' (The happy boatswain, No. 12b), Haydn again takes the opportunity to display his capabilities in the immediacy of text setting in Anna's aria 'Come in sogno' (As in a dream, No. 13b): hideous nightmares have frightened Anna and filled her with terror; she is, however, now able to give thanks to God. In 'Svanisce in un momento'(In a moment disappear, No. 13c), Haydn and Boccherini depict the fading confidence of the culprit in terms of a storm at sea.
There is still one major hurdle to negotiate: the curing of Tobit by his son, which constitutes the dramatic culmination of the oratorio. After long years of blindness, Tobit's eyes are no longer accustomed to the daylight, which explains why he experiences only burning pain at first instead of great joy: 'Che fulmine improvviso' (The sudden thunderbolt, No. 15a). But Asaria has the answer: acting on his advice, Sarah ties a black cloth round Tobit's eyes, so that by its gradual loosening, Tobit is able to adjust to the unfamiliar brightness: 'Qui di morir si parla'(Death is spoken of here, No. 16). Raphael's mission to mankind is fulfilled. In opera, the directive "A cloud descends from heaven, it covers him, and he ascends in it" would be a cue for stage machinery. In the closing chorus, those who remain give thanks to their God: 'Io non oso alzar le ciglia'(I dare not lift my eyes, No. 17).
Il ritorno di Tobia was performed in Vienna at the Kärtnertortheater in 1775 and in 1784 at the Hofburgtheater, where it was heard again in 1808 conducted by Haydn's pupil, Sigismund Neukomm. Theatres were the usual venues for oratorio in the eighteenth century, and they were a popular alternative during Lent when opera was not permitted in many places. A theatre bill announced the event in the customary manner: "On this day, Tuesday 4th of April 1775, in the privileged theatre next to the Kärtnerthor will be held for the benefit of the privileged Tonkünstlergesellschaft, established for the purpose of the upkeep of the widows and orphans of the society, a grand musical academy at which will be sung for the last time an oratorio for five voices by Mr Johann Gaston Boccherini, poet to the Imperial Theatre Royal, called: The Return of Tobias. The music, the voices and instruments which are estimated to consist of more than 180 persons, is quite new and has been composed by Mr Joseph Haydn, Kappelmeister [sic] to His Serene Highness, Prince Esterhazzy von Galantha. (…) Following the first part of the oratorio, Mr Xaver Martau, known as Hamer, chamber musician to His Serene Highness, Prince Esterhazy will be heard in a new concerto on the violoncello. The prices for admission will be the same as those for the grand operas."
Annette Oppermann, Christine Siegert
(Joseph Haydn-Institut Köln)
English translation: Neil Coleman
The Italian libretto with German translation is available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570300.htm
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HAYDN: Ritorno di Tobia (Il)