Interpreting ‘Abduction’ opera: Haydns L’incontro Improvviso, sovereignty and the Esterház festival of 1775


  • Matthew Head


Austrian composer Joseph Haydns ’seraglio opera’ L’incontro improvviso, which premiered at Esterház palace in September 1775 as part of the celebrations for the visit of the Habsburg court, frustrates current understanding of this genre. With all characters from the Middle East, little attention to religious differences between Islam and Christianity, and a musical score that avoids the military topos of Janissary music, Lincontro does not stage a confrontation of East and West. Instead, it deploys the harem setting and rescue plot to celebrate the values of Enlightened Despotism, and to project the image of a benign, peaceloving sovereign. Difference is structured not by ethnicity but social status and the opera is untouched by ideas of race. Inhabiting a harem that resembles a gallant salon, Princess Rezia embodies the contemporary ideal of woman as civilized and civilizing, and imparts a refined femininity to sovereignty itself. The exoticism of Lincontro did not refer primarily to a distant locale but to the context and occasion of its own performance the operas luxurious sets and costumes testified to the seemingly magical power of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy  to bring forth illusions, command art and nature, and give pleasure to his imperial visitors.