Orlando: The English Concert Triumph Again in Handel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Orlando HWV31: (semi-staged performance) Soloists; English Concert/Harry Bickett (director). Barbican Hall, London 1.3.2016 (CC)

Orlando – Iestyn Davies
Angelica – Erin Morley
Dorinda – Carolyn Sampson
Medoro – Sasha Cooke
Zoroastro – Kyle Ketelsen

The English Concert and Harry Bickett have delivered some scrumptious Handel in recent years: see my reviews of Theodora and Radamisto. Now it’s Orlando’s turn, a slightly different beast perhaps; da capo arias are far from over-populous, so the dramatic flow seems more fluid. There is much concentration on the characters’ inner turmoil – and in fact the piece is all the more fascinating for it. The stripping-down was perhaps reflected in the “semi-staging”, which consisted of characters moving to various locations to the left, right or centre of the stage and a single chair placed near Bickett for occasional use. The spotlight really was on Handel.

The title role of Orlando was written for the famous castrato Senesino, who had made his Handel debut in Radamisto in 1720. More than written for, perhaps: written to challenge beyond all human endurance might be more correct. The stamina required is remarkable, not least for its “mad scene” that comprises the later part of the second act.

Throughout, it was the contributions of the English Concert that brought so many shafts of illumination to Handel’s glorious score. The remarkable scoring of the Act III arioso, “Già l’ebbro mio ciglio”, for two violas (originally violette marine, an instrument close to the viola d’amore), so vulnerably unaccompanied – one might almost say isolated – at the opening before voice and theorbo gently add to the textures. Even then, the scoring is deliciously threadbare.

The intrepid Iestyn Davies took on the challenge of Orlando himself: it seems apposite that in his early aria, sprinkled with brazen hunting horns, “Imagini funeste … Non fu già” that he compares himself to Hercules. Davies’ voice was beautifully agile and sprung; indeed, Handel’s remarkable challenges to his singer seemed only to spur Davies on to greater heights, culminating, perhaps, in that “mad scene” in the central act. Handel’s storm that initiates the recitative “È questa la mercede” seems to be the seed from which the outgoing, demanding vocal part of the ensuing aria comes (“Cielo! Se tu il consenti”). It’s a bit dangerous to refer to anyone’s actions in this drama as “believable” since the opera’s basic premise is so unbelievable in itself, yet Davies palpably delivered Orlando’s mental illness in the later stages of the opera, and all the more effectively for his lack of hysteria. Technically as well as in terms of sheer stage presence, Davies was remarkable.

Orlando’s jealousy is the result of the liaison between the characters of Angelica (soprano) and Medoro (mezzo, a trouser role). Both were taken by impressive Handelians, but if prompted to choose between excellences, it is Sasha Cooke’s Medoro that would win out. Her “tree aria” (the second act aria where Medoro carves both his and Angelica’s name on a tree trunk to represent the perceived longevity of their love) was one of the evening’s clear highlights, delivered with infinite tenderness. Yet Erin Morley’s strikingly pure and expressive Angelica should not be knocked: the voices were clearly carefully chosen, as the Trio that closes the first act proved (“Consolati o bella”). Here, the two wonderfully intertwining voices are joined by that of the stunning Caroline Sampson, who this evening took the role of Dorinda.

On numerous occasions Sampson’s Handel has been revealed to be of a special nature, and her handling of Dorinda on this particular evening was no exception. Exceptional clarity in “Ho un certo rossore” in Act 1 set the scene for her excellence throughout. Her acting was wonderful – she did actually look like a broken woman at one point. Her “nightingale aria” that opens the second act (with the solo violin as the nightingale) found her properly dolorous and melancholy. This was Handel singing of the very first rank.

The bass Kyle Ketelsen took the role of the magician Zoroastro. His first aria, “Lascia amor”, with its so characteristically Handelian verve and vim, showcased his dark, strong and virile voice, the rapid runs required positive virtuosity, the definition always spot-on. There were some doubts later on though, in the work’s final stages, that Ketelsen was more lovely of voice than commanding in his role as the magician who intervenes and orchestrates manoeuvres.

In keeping with the opera as a whoLe, the final hymn of praise is rather restrained. Orlando is a fascinating experience, and seeing it in this skeletal staging allows one really to savour the imagination of Handel’s scoring. Richard Wigmore’s exemplary programme notes set the scene for this most special of evenings. Another English Concert/Handel triumph.

Colin Clarke


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