The Gotham Chamber Opera's current successful run of Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium has shed new light on Haydn as an opera composer. Like his symphonies, string quartets and oratorios, Haydn's operas burst with life and vitality, an endless fountain of melodic invention that has gone largely unheard since his death.
Although Franz Josef Haydn is respected as the father of the symphony and string quartet, his operas have sunk into obscurity. As Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn wrote 14 operas and ran an opera company that performed as many as 150 nights of the year. Unfortunately, Haydn's operas were written to be performed at Esterháza, the Prince's estate in Hungary. Mozart, by contrast had his works performed in Salzburg, Vienna, Prague and elsewhere. Haydn did not become an "urban" composer until he was released from service. This new-found freedom led to the "Paris" and "London" symphonies, and the fertile final period of the great composer's life.
The 1970s saw a renaissance in the recording and performance of Haydn's operas. The best place to start is this box set on Decca, featuring eight of his operas under the direction of conductor and Haydn expert Antal Dorati. Featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne and singers like Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks and Luigi Alva, these excellent studio recordings of Orlando Paladino, Il Mondo della Luna and others bring Haydn's operatic world to vivid life. These operas are forgotten treasures, ideal for the listener who loves Mozart but is finally burned out on Don Giovanni.
Originally issued by Philips in the vinyl era, these operas first appeared on CD as seperate, fully-priced sets. Six years ago, they came out in the box-and-paper sleeve format, housed in two seperate box sets. The copy I have makes a cool picture of the Esterházy summer palace when you put the boxes next to each other the right way. The new issue, on Decca (which absorbed the Philips label as part of the consolidations and cutbacks at Universal Music Group) lacks that packaging finesse. That said, it costs half as much and sounds just as good.
It should also be mentioned that Antal Dorati's stellar set of all 104 Haydn symphonies has been reissued by Decca at a bargain price. Of course, if all that isn't enough Haydn for you, there's the Haydn Edition from Brilliant Classics. That set included the symphonies, operas, string quartets, piano sonatas and most of the chamber music. It's like a lost weekend at Esterháza, without the mud!