Wednesday 2 March 2016

Musical values and a balanced cast - Handel's Orlando at the Barbican

Handel - Orlando - The English Concert
Handel Orlando; Iestyn Davies, Erin Morley, Carolyn Sampson, Sasha Cooke, Kyle Ketelsen, Harry Bicket, the English Concert; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 1 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Iestyn Davies showcased in the title role, in a wonderfully balanced cast

Having tempted us with excerpts from Handel's Orlando at the opening of the Wigmore Hall season in September 2015 (see my review), Iestyn Davies gave us the opportunity to hear the whole when he sang the title role in the English Concert's performance of Handel's Orlando at the Barbican on 1 March 2016. The performance was part of a tour which finishes at the Carnegie Hall in New York and the cast was suitably cross-Atlantic with a trio of young American singers, soprano Erin Morley as Angelica, Sasha Cooke as Medoro and Kyle Ketelsen as Zoroastro, plus Iestyn Davies as Orlando and Carolyn Sampson as Dorinda, with Harry Bicket directing the English Concert from the harpsichord.

In 1728 the Royal Academy, which had put on Handel's operas since its founding in 1719, ran out of money and ceased operations. Handel soon recouped and took on the Kings Theatre himself in concert with the manager John James Heidegger. Freed from the oversight by the aristocratic patrons who had run the Royal Academy, Handel seems to have been able to act more freely in the choice of subject matter and librettos. You can almost see him experimenting, there are operas based on Metastasio (a librettist Handel rarely turned to, preferring those of earlier generations), a satirical semi-comedy Partenope which had been turned down by the Royal Academy and three operas based on Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Alcina, Ariodante and Orlando. Whilst Alcina seems a return to the magic and sorcery operas of the early part of Handel's London career, Orlando seems to deliberately combine genres.

The whole opera takes place out of doors and has some supremely pastoral moments, but the presiding genius of the whole piece is the magician Zoroastro (a part vastly increased in importance for the great bass Antonio Montagnana) and the title role, the knight Orlando, is anything but heroic and the intensity of his feelings turn him mad. Handel wrote an extended mad scene for the character and the role seems entirely tailored to the skills of the castrato Sensino whose 18th role for Handel it would be. But Senesino was touchy and perhaps failed to appreciate the opportunities and disliked the lack of heroic arias, it would be the last role Senesino sang for Handel. Orlando ran for just 10 performances and significantly Handel never revived it.

The opera is full of Handel's experiments with form, not just the extended mad-scene, there are a remarkable number of accompanied recitative (always a good sign that Handel's emotions are engaged with the subject), and variations on the da capo form including Angelica's remarkable opening aria starts out as a promising formal entrance aria, appears to turn into a duet with the entrance of Medoro before collapsing into recitative. And the first act ends with the remarkable trio where Angelica and Medoro's love is contrasted to Dorinda's grief at losing Medoro in a trio which is as delightful as it is imaginative. The lovers Angelica and Medoro never do get a proper duet, but in Act three Angelica has striking duet with Orlando where two contrasting affekts are placed in complementary focus, Angelica's grief at Medoro's death and Orlando's furious madness.

Harry Bicket and the English Concert (23 players including Bicket on harpsichord and William Carter on theorbo) started things off with a grandly vigorous account of the overture, a vibrantly busy middle section leading to an infectious triple time movement. This led directly into the grand arioso for Zoroastro (Kyle Ketelson). Ketelsen, with has wonderfully dark but focussed and mobile voice, proved an ideal interpreter for this role, bringing commanding tone to the arioso and fine technique to the passagework. In all his arias, Ketelsen impressed with his combination of voice, technique and wonderful command of the stage.

The princess Angelica (with whom Orlando is in love but who falls in love with Medoro) was played by Erin Morley whose repertoire extends to the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor and Strauss' Fiakermilli (Arabella) and Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier). She has a sparklingly accurate coloratura with beautiful bright, elegant tone. Her Angelica was a bit more youthful, more pert than we were used to, rather less the grand princess and more the society girl having fun. The extended pastoral sequence at the opening of Act 2, which sees Angelica and Medoro taking leave of the wooded grove where they fell in love, gave scope for the limpid beauty of Morley's tone. But at times she seemed a little too in love with the beauty of the phrase and I could have wished Harry Bicket had encourage a bit more impetus in the music at this point. Overall, Morely was an intensely elegant and sympathetic Angelica and she had a lovely sly way with the recitative, putting over the character beautifully.

The role of the shepherdess Dorinda was written for Celeste Gismondi, who had sung comic intermezzos in Naples, so essentially she was a classy musical comedy actress. The role is far more than that, as Dorinda spends most of the opera inconsolably love-lorn and is a very rounded, human character. Carolyn Sampson brought out the more love-sick elements of the role, singing with her familiar blend of beauty of tone and highly communicative sympathy. The lovely trio, with Erin Morley's Angelica and Sasha Cooke's Medoro was beautifully conceived with Samson conveying in voice and body language Dorinda's lovesick state and refusal to be consoled. There were some places where Samson took exciting risks, fining her tone right down in a way which sounded wonderful in the stalls but which did not quite carry to the back of the circle. There were moments when I would have liked a little more pertness and a little less love-sick lyricism, but Samson did bring out the way Dorinda is quite direct and almost pointed at times. Her Act three aria was a piece of bravura brilliance, clearly designed to show of the talents of the original singer but here it was Samson who brought the house down.

Though sometimes sung by a counter-tenor nowadays, the role of Medoro was written for a female alto and was here sung by the wonderfully dark voiced mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Cooke sings a lot of Mahler, but has the sort of straight-toned, richly dark voice which makes her ideal for a range of Handel's men/women (you feel she would be great as Rosmira in Partenope who spends much of the opera dressed as a man). Despite singing so much later romantic music, Cooke showed a fine degree of focus and control in this Baroque repertoire. The role of Medoro is relatively passive and the character never gets a really heroic aria, but instead Cooke impressed with the beauty of her tone and the immense character she invested in her music. Her Act Three aria, Verdi allori, where Handel anticipates Ruggiero's Verdi Prati in Alcina, was a notably beautiful moment.

The way Handel pushes the envelope with the music for the character of Orlando makes the part very attractive to modern day singers. Orlando does get to sing a grandly heroic aria in Act One and here Iestyn Davies showed his familiar combination of technical brilliance and bravura in the fast, even passagework and the overall sense of drama with the technical being subservient to the dramatic moment. But from then on it is a downward spiral, as Orlando's madness gradually takes hold. This is trickier in concert performance but the fact that this was very much more than a stand and sing performance helped and we came to appreciate Orlando's increasing madness. The mad scene which closes Act Two is not bravura display in the early 19th century sense, instead Handel shows Orlando's madness by the way that he breaks the musical convention and sensibilities of the day and Davies brought this out with a very musical but intensely personal performance. The highlight, for me, though was the Act Three aria in which Orlando is lulled to sleep to the accompaniment of two violas (in fact a type of viola d'amore with sympathetic strings) and pizzicato strings. Pure magic.

This was a concert performance, singers in the main sang from scores. But no-one was score-bound and it was noticeable how many seemed to barely look at their scores. The result was a demi-semi staging in which characters reacted to each other, and some scenes had a real sense of dramatic interaction. Clearly someone had thought about the whole presentation, and it was this which provided the framework for Iestyn Davies fine performance.

This was a beautifully sung and finely conceived performance with some really magical moments. Perhaps the singers were sometimes a little too in love with the sheer beauty of the music, with the tone a little too laid back at times. It is possible for performances of Orlando investigate the intense darkness of passion as well as its pastoral beauty (see my review of Welsh National Opera's recent staging), but perhaps this really needs the strong hand of a director.

Throughout Harry Bicket and the English Concert gave us a fine account of the score. Bicket's encouragement of quite a strong bass line in the music worked wonders for the sound, and there were some lovely solo moments from oboes and flutes as well as the two violas. Overall this was a profoundly beautiful performance with some really magical singing from a wonderfully balanced cast. It would be nice to think that this might be recorded too, but in the rather variable world of modern commercial recording I would not hold my breath.
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