First performed on 27 January 1733, Orlando was not to prove the most popular of Handel’s operas and was never revived after a paltry number of performances during what was to be the final season for Handel’s second Academy of Music. The non-formulaic writing, particularly for the castrato role of Orlando, seems not to have impressed the original audience and Senesino, who sang Orlando, broke company with Handel in the summer of that year to defect to the Opera of the Nobility. Incidentally in the same year as Orlando’s short run, an older French composer was having his very first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, performed in Paris. What a difference in style and aesthetic there!
The rest of the cast was made up of the faithful Handelian, Anna Maria Strada del Pò, called “the pig” by Charles Burney, the travesti role of Medoro by Francesca Bertolli, the Neapolitan buffa soprano Celeste Gismondi took possibly the most emotionally interesting character in the piece, Dorinda, and the mystical role of Zoroastro by the bass Antonio Montagnana, who apparently sang with a voice like a cannon.
The opera has been regularly performed across the world in recent decades with a recent, very dreary production by WNO in Cardiff earlier this year. Seriously, if I see one more baroque opera set in a World War II US airbase, the audience better be prepared for the sonic boom as I implode with frustrated boredom. I bumped into a friend during the first interval and from his seat he’d been unable to see the surtitles, so had spent an hour listening to what was referred to as some “pretty music”. In summarising the plot for him before we launched into Act 2, the best I could come up with was that’s it about a Central Asian princess who’s married to an African squaddie, both being chased around by a demented French Catholic.
In the title role, Iestyn Davies gave a fair, if dramatically unconvincing performance. Despite a clear attempt to inject some acting into proceedings (noticeably during the Act 2 mad scene) his performance still felt rather wooden. The vocal demands of “Fammi combattere” pushed Davies to the limits but he sang the roulades successfully. The mad scene with its ever increasingly fraught repetitions of “Vaghe pupille” was thoughtful rather than deranged. Having seen and heard Marie-Nicole Lemieux completely lose it during the mad scene of Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso at the Barbican a few years ago, Davies seemed too mannered in comparison. Call it British if one must. Davies is obviously a first rate singer, so it is unfortunate that his lower notes were not projecting far beyond the stalls in the reprise of “E questa la mercede”, but I would like to think this was the result of the Barbican Hall acoustic more than anything. The sleep aria “Già l’ebro mio ciglio” in Act 3 was stronger and accompanied by two viole, no viole d’amore substitute for us alas. Davies did well with the reflective music, eventually slipping into silence that equally silenced the audience.
The rest of the cast were of a high standard and despite my reluctant reservations expressed above this was a fine performance. Opening the opera with a wonderfully warm and resonant bass tone was Kyle Ketelsen as Zoroastro. Whilst the sound is thankfully not like a cannon, there was an even tone produced in the vocal line of “Lascia amor”. His delivery of “Sorge infausta” was exhilarating and with some spunky, growling low notes in “Tra caligini profondi”, I wished Zoroastro had more of a role, if only to hear more from Ketelsen. He showed strong presence on the concert stage and makes an enjoyable Handel singer.
As the tragi-comedic or comi-tragical character of Dorinda, Carolyn Sampson initially came across as performing with a tight yet bright sound but with little warmth to humanise this affectionate role. There was an appropriate sighing and nervousness given in “Ho un certo rossore”; by the wondrous Act 1 trio she really portrayed the unsure and hurt shepherdess and from then onwards there was much to enjoy. The performers’ actions in the recitative prior to the trio were well done and very moving, Sampson shooting angry glances at her rival whilst Medoro and Angelica looked more embarrassed to be dealing with the situation than understanding the pain the characters have caused. Erin Morley as Angelica in this trio gently pushed her voice into the upper register with secure held notes and the whole rendition oozed with melting lyricism. A gentle and soft held note from Sampson closed the act. The audience, moved, held their collective breath and let the music finish quietly before showing their approval.
A moving tremolo in the voice of Sampson during ”Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti” was effective and there were decent ululations in “Se mi rivolgo al prato”, her voice controlled and with a richer sound than at the start of the evening, which won further sympathy for the character. She rendered some fun, grungy low notes in “Amor è qual vento”, singing more passionately and a fuller range of dynamics, with a welcome ranting delivery of the rapid notes, but an unconvincing improvisation during the fermata at the end of the aria slightly marred this.
Morley proved an elegant and poised presence with secure and stylish singing in “Chi possessore è del mio cor”. It was all very playful and a little mischievous, though the final ornamentation of the aria was a little anachronistic, sounding out of sorts with the preceding music. “Se fedel vuoi ch’io ti creda” was gorgeous and this would typify much of her performance, with limpid singing and beautiful control of her voice. Accompanied with biting urgency from the strings in “Non potrà dirmi ingrata” she calmly produced the flutterings in the upper range with apparent ease. A wistful rendition of “Verdi piante” was a joy with its steady legato flow, though recorders looked as if they had surprised themselves with their slightly sharp entry. Morley was a highlight of the evening.
In the role of Medoro, Sasha Cooke’s characterisation made a huge contrast to Orlando from her very entry. Volume, a rich and fulsome tone, control, all combined with a pleasantly surprising descent into lower register in “Se il cor mai ti dirà” and an impassioned performance of “Vorrei poterti amar” all added to a performance so enjoyable that I would like to hear her as Orlando one day. One of the highlights of the opera is naturally “Verdi allori” and this was delivered exquisitely, such a delight to listen to, and, as often happened in this performance, the audience was moved to silence in appreciation.
Accompanying the magic of the evening, The English Concert demonstrated crisp articulation in the second section of the overture, and were effectively wispy sounding in the fleeting gigue. With their solo appearance in the music, there was a magnificently produced held note from horn player Ursula Paludan Monberg in Orlando’s first full aria in Act 1. Throughout, the group lived up to their high standards and never overpowered the voices or attempted brash theatrical effects as increasingly seems the fashion for period orchestras. They played the music sensitively and under conductor Harry Bicket contributed to a highly successful performance.