03 Mar 2016

Orlando at the Barbican

In 1728 Handel was down on his luck, following the demise of his ‘Royal Academy’. Ever the entrepreneur, the following year he made a scouting tour of Italy in search of the best singing talent and, returning with seven new virtuosos — including the castrato Senesino.

He became joint manager of the King’s Theatre with the Swiss aristocrat John James Heidegger, opening the ‘Second Academy’ in December 1729. Orlando was designed to win back audiences eager to experience new works sung by star singers, and Handel garnered a stellar cast alongside Senesino, including rival sopranos Anna Strada del Pò and Celeste Gismondi.

Orlando was first performed on January 27th 1733 and received about ten performances that season before illness and temperamental unrest among the cast intervened, cutting short the planned run. In the summer of 1733, Senesino defected to the competing company, the Opera of the Nobility, and the opera was not revived again by Handel. But, it’s surely one of the composer’s best operas, bursting with inspired melody, imaginative instrumental colourings, immense formal invention, psychological richness, and expressive variety.

One of many operas based upon an episode from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, the opera presents a very human tale of conflicting forces: passion and ambition versus self-discipline and resignation. Advised by the magician-philosopher Zoroastro to eschew his passion for Angelica and follow the path of glory, Orlando adamantly pursues his romantic desires. But, Angelica has become enamoured of the soldier Medoro, who is himself adoringly worshipped by the sweet-natured shepherdess, Dorinda. Finding the lovers’ initials carved on a tree, Orlando learns of Angelica’s betrayal and descends into madness; he is prevented from carrying out his murderous threats by the intervention of Zoroastro, who casts Orlando into a cave and summons an eagle and magic potion to cure Orlando of his affliction.

At the Barbican Hall, Harry Bicket and the English Concert were joined by a splendid cast of five young singers, including a trio of Americans, for a ‘concert’ performance which was musically compelling and lacked none of the tension of the theatre. The soloists possessed varied and vibrantly expressive voices and inhabited their roles with utter persuasiveness, their modern dress emphasising the wider, and timeless, allegorical framework. This performance was the third in a five-concert tour (which ends at the Carnegie Hall in March), and the singers all performed impressively ‘off the score’, which aided the astuteness of their characterisation.

Stepping into Senesimo’s shoes on this occasion was countertenor Iestyn Davies. Bicket and Davies ‘warmed up’ for this performance in 2015, when they presented several arias from Orlando in the opening concert of the Wigmore Hall’s 2015-16 season, alongside arias from Rinaldo, Rodelinda and Partenope. The ‘infinite variety of colour’ and ‘expressive depth’ that I noted on that occasion were once again in evidence, and used to compelling effect in a portrayal which emphasised the dark introspection and inner rage of the troubled soldier. Alert to the disjunctions and disruptions resulting from Orlando’s mercurial temperament, Davies prowled the platform with lowering intensity; when seated, he was bowed with a seemingly unbearable burden of anxiety and despair.

Urged by the magician-philosopher Zoroastro to redirect his energies from love to combat, Davies presented his opening aria, ‘Non fu già men forte’, with brightness and warmth, the lyrical ardour supplemented by the glowing playing of the two natural horns, who injected a charming touch of mock heroism.

Technically impeccable throughout the performance, Davies launched into the score’s astonishing prestissimo flights with relaxed ease and without any loss of focus. The breath control exhibited in his Act 2 aria, ‘Cielo! se tu il consenti deh! Fà’, was remarkable, and equalled by the fluid passagework of ‘Fammi combattere’; there was continuity of tone throughout the vocal extravagances, and the latter unfailingly served an expressive purpose.

Emerging from behind the orchestra, where Orlando had been nursing his grievances and torments, Davies delivered a ‘mad scene’ which demonstrated expert appreciation of the protagonist’s disordered temperament, moving with discomforting readiness between dread and nonchalance, and gliding easily through the ever-shifting time signatures and tempi. ‘Ah Stigie larve’, in which the unhinged Orlando imagines a descent to the Underworld, was enhanced by fine theorbo playing; the fresh simplicity of the repetitions of ‘Vaghe pupille’ (Lovely eyes) were movingly interposed between the scene’s darker emotional tumults. Indeed, Davies’ lack of mannerism and simple directness movingly conveyed the destructive of the insanity inspired by his jealous ire; the poignancy was all the greater for the lack of affectedness. In Act 3’s ‘Già per la man d’Orlando … Già cl’ebro mio ciglio’, an invocation to sleep, Davies’ gentle yet elegant vocal pianissimo was complemented by a deliciously dulcet viola duet.

Erin Morley’s Angelica exhibited a sunny temperament, evidently not too troubled by the psychological distress her amorous indulgences had triggered in the hero. Morley’s soprano shone, gliding mellifluously through Handel’s graceful phrases in the numerous slow-tempo arias; the honeyed beauty of her opening solo, ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ (which is surprisingly truncated by arrival of Medoro, whereupon it slips into recitative) foreshadowed the silky loveliness of ‘Verdi piante’ in Act 2, the da capo of which was thrillingly soft. Morley’s phrasing was unwaveringly immaculate, though at times I felt that musical elegance was put before dramatic intensity.

As Medoro, Sasha Cooke delivered a gorgeous ‘Verdi allori’ — that among a less superlative might even have stolen the show — exhibiting a wonderfully lustrous, firm mezzo which has poise and presence. Cooke’s delivery of the text in the recitatives was especially noteworthy, and emphasised the integrity and nobility of Medoro’s character.

Handel’s work is distinguished by the addition of two characters who are not present in Ariosto. Kyle Ketersen’s Zoroastro was an imposing figure, a sort of benevolent Don Alfonso. He was perhaps a little more wedded to the score than his fellow singers, but his singing was agile and appealing of tone, and his projection of the text could not be faulted. Ketersen descended to the depths with tautness and evenness in his Act 2 aria, ‘Tra caligni profonde’, as he warned Orlando that madness beckoned if he did not open up his mind to the light of reason; and the bass was superbly animated in the faster passagework of his Act 3 ‘Sarge infausta’— without aspirating the coloratura as so many basses singing Handel are wont to do — as the tempest rose and darkened sky and sea.

As Dorinda, Carolyn Sampson began in playfully innocent, even gauche, fashion — a reminder that Orlando can be interpreted comically (some commentators have suggested that Senesimo’s distaste for the role was due in part to his uncertainty whether the protagonist was to be played with grave seriousness or as a love-struck fool, and whether Senesimo himself was being mocked). As her triplets skipped lightly in ‘O care parolette’, Dorinda’s naïve detachment initially seemed a little out of kilter with the prevailing dramatic mood. However, in Act 2, Sampson’s magically floated ‘nightingale aria’ and the gentle beauties of the following minor-key siciliano, ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’, cast any doubts aside, and Act 3’s ‘Amor è qual vento’ swirled and leapt impressively through the wide-ranging compass, as Sampson moved in and out of chest register, with good focus in her lower register.

The players of the English Concert provided a buoyant, vibrant accompaniment. The four-part overture seemed to embody the opera’s emotional trajectory, the tight dotted rhythms of the opening movement initially finding release in the triple-time dance which follows; there was then a move into anxious realms in the minor-key, flourish-embellished Lento, before balance was restored by the lively celebratory triplets of the concluding gigue. Bicket’s approach throughout was distinctly ‘less is more’; he provided leadership through his alert harpsichord playing rather through overt gesture, but still coaxed meaningful interaction between instrumentalists and singers. It took a few numbers for the ensemble to settle but Nadja Zwiener was an authoritative and characterful leader. In Act 1 the swift movement from recitative to aria was complemented by the compelling forward impetus inspired by the vigorous string playing and a particularly characterful bass line; but after the urgency of the emotional arguments in Act 1, Bicket provided space in Act 2 for the romantic raptures of Angelica and Medoro to unfold, allowing the singers to linger and to shape the arioso phrases with thoughtfulness and care.

The ‘argument’ which was printed at the start of Handel’s libretto, rather than outlining the plot, unusually sets out an ethical ‘case’ — explaining that the opera is a sort of ‘morality play’ which demonstrates: ‘the imperious Manner in which Love insinuates its Impressions into the Hearts of Persons of all Ranks; likewise how a wise Man should be ever ready with his best Endeavours to re-conduct into the Right Way, those who have been misguided from it by the Illusion of their Passions.’

This exceptional performance certainly followed the ‘Right Way’ and insinuated its impression into this listener’s heart.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

The English Concert: Harry Bicket — conductor/harpsichord, Orlando — Iestyn Davies, Angelica — Erin Morley, Dorinda — Carolyn Sampson, Medoro — Sasha Cooke, Zoroastro — Kyle Ketelsen. Barbican Hall, London, 1 March 2016.