Sept 2, 1773:
PHILEMON UND BAUCIS – Joseph Haydn’s Marionette Opera had premiere at Esterháza (now known as Esterházy Palace, at Fertöd, Hungary)
“If I want to hear good opera I must come to Eszterháza,” Maria Theresa is supposed to have said, giving a somewhat misleading impression. In fact she was there on only one occasion, for the first two days of September 1773. The large scale celebrations were written up in local newspaper reports. On the first day there was a banquet (at which three gamebirds killed by Haydn with one shot were on the Empress’s plate), the inspection of the Park, a performance of Haydn’s opera “L’infedeltà delusa” in the opera house, followed by a fancy-dress ball which lasted till dawn. During an intermission in the ball the Prince showed the imperial party his new Chinese Pleasurehouse. The walls were covered with mirrors which reflected the light of innumerable Chinese lanterns and candles. Haydn and the orchestra played a symphony and other works. The main ball took place in a 130 foot long Chinese gallery adjoining the opera house. Eleven chandeliers and 600 candles illuminated the room and the musicians were dressed in Chinese costume. It was the stove in this room that exploded in 1779 causing the fire that completely destroyed the first opera house and, far worse, all the music and parts of the operas written to date with the exception of the scores that Haydn had fortuitously taken to his living quarters some half mile away (still preserved).
The next evening’s entertainment started with Haydn’s specially composed marionette opera “Philemon und Baucis”, or “Jupiter’s journey to Earth”. This could well have been the official opening of the marionette theatre, which, unlike the rebuilt opera house and the Chinese Pleasurehouse, still can be seen, although now used for agricultural purposes. The auditorium was flanked on both sides by caves domed with rockery and sea shells in the fashionable rocaille style. Some of the caves were embellished with fresco paintings, others with miniature fountains.
The puppet opera was followed by a festive supper after which the Prince led the Imperial party through an avenue illuminated with coloured Chinese lanterns to the site of a spectacular firework display. Once seated the Empress lit the first fuse. After the fireworks an outdoor ball took place in a specially prepared arena, lit by more than 20,000 Chinese lanterns and with over a thousand young peasants performing local dances.
The opera was repeated at Eszterháza in 1776, presumably with a less elaborate final tableau, and was then available as two pieces, the prologue on Olympus as “Der Götterrat” and the main opera as “Philemon und Baucis”. At some time in the 19th century the music disappeared completely, though the printed libretto survived. In 1935 a manuscript score from about 1800 of the main opera was discovered in a Paris bookshop, without the prologue and without the final chorus, but with a lot of extraneous material by other composers that could be discarded thanks to the existence of the libretto. Music from earlier in the opera is repeated for the final chorus. It is generally agreed that the first two movements of Symphony No. 50 were the original overture to the prologue. H. C. Robbins Landon prepared a performing version and produced the first recording in Vienna in 1951.
The tale of Philemon and Baucis appears in Book 8 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Two tree trunks grow together in a walled enclosure on a hilltop, surrounded by a swamp, in Phrygia. The story is that the gods destroyed the village but left a temple with the old couple to look after it. Their one wish was to die together when their time came and they were transformed into an entwined oak and a lime. The libretto Haydn set is based on a play by the blind Alsatian poet and teacher, Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel, presumably found and adapted by the Esterházy librarian, Philipp Georg Bader. Gounod composed a version of the story in 1860. In this very French operetta Baucis asks for the return of her youth, Jupiter falls in love with her and a second wish returns her to Philemon and safe old age.