Friday, 2 February 2018

Finely balanced casting: La Nuova Musica in Handel's Orlando

Lawrence Zazzo
Lawrence Zazzo
Handel Orlando; Lawrence Zazzo, Rowan Pierce, Lucy Crowe, Christopher Lowrey, William Berger, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 1 2018
Star rating: 5.0

Handel's late masterpiece in a vividly engaging performance from La Nuova Musica

Handel's Orlando is a slightly strange piece, a pastoral comedy about the pull between love and glory in which the hero goes temporarily mad, giving the piece all sorts of darker undertones. It was all to much for the great castrato Senesino, Orlando was the last role he sang for Handel. But the sheer uncertainty of tone and lack of reliance on formula have made it attractive to modern day audiences. Welsh National Opera performed the work in 2015 with Lawrence Zazzo in the title role [see my review].

Lawrence Zazzo was again the protagonist in David Bates and La Nuova Musica's concert performance at St John's Smith Square on Thursday 1 February 2018, with Lucy Crowe as Angelica, Rowan Pierce as Dorinda, Christopher Lowrey as Medoro, and William Berger as Zoroastro.

Orlando is one of Handel's shorter opera serias, but it is still rather long for a mid-week concert performance and at St John's Smith Square it was performed cut. This was discreetly done, though it did rather emphasise the somewhat telegraphic nature of the recitative and threw the spotlight onto the arias. Thankfully this was very welcome, given the high quality of the performances from a beautifully balanced cast which included four nicely contrasting high voices.
Lawrence Zazzo was a wonderfully engaged Orlando, creating a vivid character sketch in each aria which was far more than a mere concert performance. Zazzo brought out the character's myriad moods from the martial moments to his love-sick obsessions, but the highlight of course is the mad scene at the end of Act Two. This is made up of a sequence of short movements, as Orlando's mind skids from one place to another, all nicely evoked by Zazzo with technical bravura too. In Orlando's last aria he is falling asleep and Handel creates a magical accompaniment with two solo violas, beautifully rendered here by Jane Rogers and Jordan Bowron.

The love triangles in the opera are somewhat complex, and it is no wonder that at the end Orlando gives up on love and returns to martial glory. Orlando is in love with Angelica (Lucy Crowe) who is in love with Medoro (Christopher Lowrey) who is loved by Dorinda (Rowan Pierce).

The shepherdess Dorinda is one of Handel's most poignantly delightful figures. There is a sharpness to her character, which Rowan Pierce brought out delightfully, I loved the sequence when Pierce's characterful Dorinda expressed surprise that the great Orlando is declaring his love for her. Pierce sang Dorinda's love-inspired music with elegant poise including the nightingale-inspired cavatina which opened act to, but it was the love-sick moments that Pierce made really poignant

Angelica, in love with one man and loved by another, has a sequence of intense arias. Lucy Crowe really brought out the plangency in Angelica's music, singing with expressive elegance and giving us some finely expressive ornamentation in the da capo repeats. But all was not anxiety, in her Act Two aria 'Verdi piante' Angelica bids farewell to the green plants of the wood where she has been living, a hauntingly beautiful moment when time stood still. Angelica's love, Medoro (Christopher Lowrey) spends most of the opera in love, yet Lowrey did this in such a beautifully mellifluous fashion, creating a shapely sense of line.

The magician Zoroastro oversees all the action; Handel expanded the role for the great bass Montagnana including adding a wonderful opening accompagnato. William Berger took some time to warm up, and this opening seemed somewhat understated, it was only when it came to the da capo repeats of his arias that Berger's performance came alive, perhaps he relished the freedom this gave him.

David Bates directed a finely crafted performance from La Nuova Musica with many individual players contributing fine solo moments in addition to the wonderfully engaged sense of communal spirit. The programme notes quoted Sir John Clerk's description of Handel's orchestra, which made me long for a performance which experimented with Handel's 2 harpsichords, 2 large basse violins, 4 violoncellos, 4 bassoons, 2 hautbois, 1 theorbo lute and above 24 violins!

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