Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (11) – Haydn opera fails to grip despite committed performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, Orlando Paladino: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, René Jacobs (conductor). Usher Hall, 25.8.2011 (SRT)

Angelica – Sine Bundgaard (sop)
Rodomonte – Pietro Spagnoli (bar)
Orlando – Stéphane Degout (bar)
Medoro – Magnus Staveland (ten)
Eurilla – Sunhae Im (sop)
Pasquale – Victor Torres (bar)
Alcina – Alexandrina Pendatchanska (sop)

Lots of Haydnistas have come up with reason (excuses?) as to why his operas haven’t been performed as much as those of his contemporaries, most notably Mozart, but listening to Orlando Paladino the main problem for me was the incredibly flabby sense of dramatic pacing and timing. In this work Haydn takes far too long to get anywhere and the results just don’t hold the attention as much as they should. The role of Orlando, in particular, is a waste of a good baritone, consisting mostly of accompagnato recitatives with the occasional aria, though these are very beautiful when they arrive. True, the opera has good moments and there is even some light humour to alleviate the journey and, to give Haydn his due, much of the opera is written as a parody of the operatic conventions of his day, such as the blustering knight Rodomonte who makes fun of the stock chivalric characters of opera seria. Too often, however, the joke just gets lost: the role of Medoro is meant to satirise the wilting, spineless tenors who take forever to decide on a course of action, but in this work the stereotype seems to ring too true and the character just seems plain unappealing.

This evening was saved by the sheer commitment of the performers involved, most of whom have sung the role on stage in Jacobs’ Berlin production, now also available on DVD. Stéphane Degout sang beautifully throughout, especially in his Act 3 aria when he had been washed by the waters of Lethe, and his strong, characterful baritone voice was of the kind to make any listener sit up and take notice: it’s just a shame he didn’t have more interesting things to do. Victor Torres, the principal buffo role, impressed with his patter in his two catalogue arias, though Pietro Spagnoli’s Rodomonte was the more convincing singer. Magnus Staveland made the best of a bad situation as Medoro. The ladies were very fine, Sine Bundgaard showing remarkable technique in the killer runs and leaps of Angelica, and Suhae Im giving some marvellously flexible coloratura in the lighter role of Eurilla, but Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s Alcina had the finest female voice of all, rounded and rich with exciting technique and pin-point accuracy; her Act 3 aria came close to stealing the show. Jacobs was on his best behaviour, pulling none of the wilful tricks that have marred many of his Mozart recordings and keeping the whole thing moving with a sense of bounce. His orchestra played for him with a fabulous array of colour and wit, and the whole show was helped by the way the singers threw themselves into acting their parts, making this a semi-staged rather than a concert performance. Still, despite some great moments, this evening reminded me that there are good reasons why we don’t hear Haydn’s operas performed more often.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.

Simon Thompson