Andreas Spering

Haydn: Il ritorno di Tobia

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Arguably, Haydn's best opera isn't an opera at all. The oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia, Hob. 21/1, composed in 1775 and recorded here with two choruses added in 1784, is putatively a sacred work, drawing on the biblical (at least for Catholics and the Orthodox) Book of Tobit. But the narrative, featuring the return of a prodigal son, a fish-liver cure for blindness, a grieving mother and wife, and a disguised angel who ascends into heaven midway through, is a dramatic whole, full of tension and passionate arias, not a group of expected set pieces. The work clocks in at nearly three hours, which consigned it to the dustbin from its time until ours, and the present box is one of just a few contemporary performances. It's very nicely done. Much of the most spectacular vocal writing goes to the disguised Raphael, a pants role for soprano, and the marvelous Roberta Invernizzi is impressively athletic. Bass Nikolay Borchev as the blind father Tobit is also strong, with quietly sad arias unlike almost anything else in Haydn's output. The Capella Augustina under Andreas Spering keeps the energy level high throughout this large work. Negatives include residence on the flat side of the pitch from alto Ann Hallenberg as Tobit's wife Anna, surprisingly boxy studio sound from the Cologne offices of Deutschlandfunk, and the absence of libretto text in any language other than Italian. Translations would seem to be of paramount importance in introducing an unfamiliar work, and in a three-CD box there is plenty of room for a few extra pages in the booklet. The action is nonetheless intelligible to non-Italophones with the help of a detailed synopsis in the booklet commentary, and lovers of the two great oratorios from the end of Haydn's life can turn with confidence to this recording of a work from the composer's underappreciated middle period. The recording may well stimulate others by top-level vocal stars, and it convinces you that the music is strong enough to stand up to such a thing. The libretto, incidentally, is by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi Boccherini.

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