Music in 'Fidelity' overcomes plot and sea monster

November 16, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

The operatic repertoire is full of extreme melodramas in which lofty romance and awful revenge would give any TV soap opera a run for its money. But if most operas have at least some connection to the tumultuous real world, Haydn's "The Perils of Fidelity" sets its very real emotional content within the most unreal of settings.

Not only does "The Perils of Fidelity" take place in a mythical country, but a sea monster is to blame for most of the ensuing plot complications. Being monstrously unreasonable, this beast can be appeased only through the annual sacrifice of a romantic couple. These sacrificial lovers must be completely faithful, which raises the sorts of practical and philosophical concerns around which many an aria is constructed.

If this opera is unfamiliar to you, and if, for that matter, Haydn is known to you only for his symphonies and chamber music, there's no need to get an inferiority complex. Although Haydn was as prolific an operatic composer as his 18th-century peer Mozart, his operas are now rarely performed. In fact, "The Perils of Fidelity," being mounted this weekend in the Peabody Institute's Friedberg Concert Hall, has been staged only a few times in this country.

"The blunt fact is that the piece is absolutely marvelous in some respects and a real problem in other respects," says Roger Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, which is doing the opera with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under conductor Edward Polochick. It will be sung in the original Italian with English supertitles.

Mr. Brunyate explains that the opera's chief virtue is the music itself, which he says has delighted his student cast through weeks of rehearsal.

"Every voice sounds better singing this music," he says. "It's such graceful and wonderful music . . . It's very airy, more like the Haydn of the string quartets. He immediately gives you a great sense of familiarity; that is, music you think you've heard before. At the moment you think that, Haydn changes the music as if to say 'No, you haven't heard it before.' This opera is like that. It's music you can't take for granted."

One probable reason Haydn's operas have had relatively few productions since the composer's era, Mr. Brunyate says, is the nature of their commissioning. Haydn's 16th opera, "The Perils of Fidelity" was commissioned by his royal patron, Prince Esterhazy of Austria, in 1780. Such operas generally were written for specific occasions and a small audience, so they rarely developed a performance track record in other European countries.

Another likely explanation is that Haydn worried more about the scoring than the story line. In fact, he took the plot for "Perils" from an existing libretto. By modern standards, its convoluted story about a sea monster, assorted lovers, a high priest, a

shepherdess, a count and satyrs -- with some divine intervention tossed in to help settle things -- might seem too far removed from a world with which we can identify.

"You've got to accept this entirely fanciful device of the sea monster. There's no way you can explain it," says Mr. Brunyate with a smile. "After that, though, the situations people get into, though caused by this ridiculous device, are nonetheless tied to real feelings."

Unlike Mozart's strong connections between the plot and the music, "Haydn is interested in feeling, but not in how he gets there," says Mr. Brunyate. "He doesn't tend to express feeling through action, but more through music -- some of which is beautiful. Sometimes the situations that produce these feelings are set up in an almost arbitrary manner."

Because of the arbitrariness of the setting, Mr. Brunyate says, he decided on a production design that "makes the characters seem like they're in a Merchant-Ivory film set at the turn of the 20th century, but nothing too specific." It's a streamlined classicism he likens to "Poussin interpreted by Matisse."

His descriptions of the comic complications within that abstracted setting might make the opera seem like no more than silly fun, but he underscores the surprising depth of feeling that emerges from the opera. "It presents itself as an opera buffa, where the plots are often sort of contrived. But it is comic with serious overtones. The way the plot is manipulated is a comic technique, but on the other hand, the feelings expressed in it are really not comic feelings. They're not treated in an arbitrary way at all."

'THE PERILS OF FIDELITY'

Where: Friedberg Concert Hall, Peabody Institute

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20; $10 for senior citizens and students with ID

Call: (410) 659-8124

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