Background to the story Note by Robert Hess
Thirteen years prior to the action, Costanza, her husband Gernando and her little sister Silvia were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. Leaving Costanza and Silvia behind, Gernando searches for help, but is captured and enslaved by pirates. For all these years, Costanza has believed herself betrayed and abandoned by her husband.
After the dramatic and agitated overture (interrupted by a wistful middle section) we observe Costanza, standing beside a boulder, facing the sea. On the boulder, she is laboriously carving an inscription that chronicles her supposed desertion. Haydn’s instrumental music suggests this activity, as well as delineating the characters, their emotional states, and their responses to each other; later in the opera he will associate the violin with Costanza, the flute with Silvia, the cello with Gernando, and the bassoon with Enrico.
Her young sister Silvia enters with her beloved pet fawn. Silvia is as light-hearted as her sister is despondent and finds ways to enjoy life on the island. Refusing her cheer, Costanza tries to convince Silvia once again that as a victim of man’s deceit she has a right to weep (Aria No. 1: Who Could Ever Know All the Anguish”).
Costanza leaves. Silvia is excited by the sight of an approaching vessel. She hides among the trees as two men come ashore. They are Gernando and his companion Enrico, who have just freed themselves from the pirates’ captivity. Gernando is seeking his long-lost wife with Enrico’s help, though fears that she is dead. Enrico sings of the nobility of their mission (Aria No. 2: “He Who Pursues His Honor”).
Silvia, from her hiding place, is immediately attracted to Enrico (whom she assumes cannot be a man, for she knows men are bad). Before trying to find Costanza she sings of her new-found feelings (Aria No. 3: “I Cannot Stop Sighing”).
Gernando returns, alone and discouraged. Enrico attempts to persuade him to discontinue his search and return home. But Gernando wants to live out his life on the island where he believes his beloved has died (Aria No. 4: “You Must Go”).
Enrico, determined to bring Gernando home with him, enlists two sailors from their ship to ambush him and force him back to their vessel. Silvia returns and encounters Enrico face to face. She is frightened but fascinated. He is taken by her beauty. In a cautious conversation, he learns her identity and that Costanza is alive. He goes to inform Gernando. Silvia remains and realizes she is truly in love (Aria No. 5: “Like Rising Mist, the Burning Fire Increases in My Heart”). Costanza, meanwhile, is ever sadder at her living death (Aria No. 6: “Ah, In Vain the Years are Flying”). She goes back to her labor of inscribing the boulder.
Gernando returns (Aria No. 7: “Let Me Return to the Stone,” which echoes Costanza’s previous aria) and is stunned to see his wife alive. She swoons upon seeing him. He rushes off to fetch some water to revive her.
Enrico arrives in the meantime. Costanza, in her delirium, thinks he is Gernando and harshly reviles him. He amazes her with the story of what really happened. Upon Gernando’s return, she apologizes for accusing him wrongly and for mis-educating her sister, and they are happily re-united.
Enrico asks for Silvia’s hand in marriage and the two couples rejoice, first singly, then together (Quartet Finale, including mini-concertos for the instrument associated with each character). They leave the uninhabited island singing “We’re Free to Go Home Again!”
Elaine Sisman is the Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music at Columbia University, where she has taught since 1982, serving six years as department chair. She recently concluded a term as president of the American Musicological Society. The author of Haydn and the Classical Variation and Mozart: The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, and editor of Haydn and His World, she specializes in music