Between the limits of historically-informed performance, period instrumentation, and the viability of an intimate chamber opera in a house the size of the Met or La Scala, there exists a stigma against Baroque opera that it cannot hold dramatic weight. On one hand, one could argue that the stories are too esoteric and the music and words seldom come together to form a sublime or affecting musico-dramatic moment, and to some degree that is correct. But on the other hand, though, is The English Concert’s thrilling performance of George Frideric Handel’s Orlando at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday. Intelligent, confident music making at Sunday’s performance made a sterling case for Baroque opera as a genuinely exciting, engrossing form of theater.
The English Concert, in their annual Carnegie Hall operatic appearance, never fails to impress. Under the controlled hand and harpsichord of Harry Bicket, Handel’s 1733 opera was given a ferocious yet textured reading with excellent playing throughout the orchestra. Nadja Zweiner, concertmistress of the ensemble, was a special standout with her furious playing of Handel’s florid, relentless music violin music. Across the board, though, the orchestral values were at an absolute premium and Handel’s exciting, richly-varied score was served incredibly well at the hands of this meticulous orchestra.
Orlando, the title character in Ludovico Ariosto’s poem that inspired this opera and countless others, is a decorated knight in Charlemagne’s army who has fallen in love with Angelica, a pagan priestess. Angelica, though, is in love with Medoro, a Moorish soldier. Now add to the mix Dorinda, a persistent shepherdess who is also in love with Medoro. Spurned by Angelica, Orlando is driven to madness until he eventually comes-to with the help of the magician Zoroastro. Everybody forgets about how Orlando completely lost it, Angelica and Medoro are reunited, and it all ends cheerfully.
The ensemble of singers was admirably cohesive throughout, each singer displaying an attractive voice with facility with the music. In the title role, Iestyn Davies’ cool, evenly-produced, caramel-colored countertenor effortlessly glided through most of the music with intelligent phrasing and measured emotion. While the intense agility singing is not his immediate strength, he acquitted himself well for most of the performance. Yet, and not for lack of confidence with the music, as he went nearly-scoreless for the duration of the three-and-a-half hour concert performance, there seemed a lack of incisiveness and intensity in his interpretation. While Davies’ intellectual approach may serve him better in other roles (Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example), he was unable to inject some of the intensity requisite for his character, a war hero, into his interpretation. Indeed, his most compelling singing was the exquisitely executed Mad Scene “Ah! Stigie Larve,” which saw him finally let loose and “go for it” in an intense way. When he ended the scene, wilted in a chair precariously placed right at the edge of the Perelman Stage, Davies’ finally inhabited the character for what he was: a proud night reduced to desperation, literally resting on a precipice.
Erin Morley’s Angelica was to die for. Morley’s sweet soprano seemed right at home with the opera. She made sensitive phrasing choices throughout and impressed with exciting and exactingly-executed coloratura runs and roulades. In her second-act aria, she completely let loose and deftly balanced detailed technical singing with fire-breathing intensity in what was the most exciting bit of singing up until that point.
The show-stealer, though was Carolyn Sampson’s Dorinda. Sampson wasn’t given a whole lot to work with; the character is weak and annoying. But Sampson’s perky, forward-placed soprano brought a unique dramatic heft to the part and infused it, even in moments of despair, with irresistible warmth, intensity, and personality and a surprising thrust in the lower part of the voice. The high-point of the afternoon was her third-act aria “Amore è qual vento” which saw perfectly-executed octave leaps, coloratura licks, and a nice cadenza. In her other arias, her ornaments were tasteful and her voice gleamed like the starburst motif on her gown. This was an interpretation simply wanting for nothing.
Equally strong was mezzo Sasha Cooke as Medoro. Cooke’s rich mezzo with strong low notes added a restrained elegance to her ensembles and she even revealed a pleasing trill. Her warmth and winning smile radiated from the stage and her singing was secure and intelligent. In her trio with the two other women, the voices created a beautiful, sonorous blend that showed collaborative music-making at its highest.
Zoroastro is the smallest role in Handel’s 5-character opera, but Kyle Ketelsen sang well with a deep, soft-grained bass sound. Though he seemed to run out of steam towards the end of his first aria and his runs in the final scene sometimes lagged, his singing the rest of the afternoon was clean and tasteful.
The English Concert returns to Carnegie Hall next year with Handel’s Ariodante starring Joyce DiDonato and Sonia Prina. If Ariodante is anything like Sunday’s Orlando, then snap up a ticket as soon as you can. It’s bound to be great.