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Carolyn Sampson [Photo by Borggreve]
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Entrancing Orlando at the Concertgebouw

The English Concert’s travelling Orlando has been collecting rave reviews. Here’s another one from Amsterdam, the last stop on their tour before Carnegie Hall.

Entrancing Orlando at the Concertgebouw

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Carolyn Sampson [Photo by Borggreve]


The Dutch capital is spoiled when it comes to baroque opera in general and Handel in particular. The current season alone has included concert performances of Theodora, Tamerlano and Partenope, as well as a staged run of Ariodante. This surfeit would explain the many empty seats at the Concertgebouw last Monday. By rights, this entrancing performance deserved a full-capacity house. Orlando relates how Roland, Charlemagne’s chief paladin, goes mad when he realises that Angelica, Queen of Cathay, does not love him but the African prince Medoro. The action takes place around a grove, the habitat of a shepherdess named Dorinda. She also falls for Medoro but, although disconsolate, accepts that he will never be hers. Orlando, on the other hand, refuses to resign himself and suffers a psychotic episode. He imagines himself visiting the underworld, then goes on a vengeful killing spree, after which he falls into a deep sleep. Fortunately, the fifth character in the cast is Zoroastro, a magician who must be the hardest working deus ex machina in all of opera. Zoroastro foresees Orlando’s actions and intervenes several times, with escape chariots, topographical transformations and healing potions. In the end, he brings Orlando to his senses and also reveals that he has saved Angelica and Medoro from his murderous rage.

Harry Bicket, conducting at the harpsichord, took the cue from the opera's pastoral character and presented the score as a Rococo idyll in soft sunlight. The listener could just sit back and bask in the assured precision and shimmering sounds of The English Concert. Consistent with the emotion-driven plot, the musical story-telling was inwardly sensitive rather than ostensive. Dramatic eloquence emerged from the disciplined and meltingly beautiful playing, such as in Dorinda's sad nightingale aria “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti”, where the laden rests suggested suppressed sobs. Such refined expression is impossible without soloists to match and all five were on a par with the orchestra. Soprano Carolyn Sampson was Dorinda, struggling valiantly between staying sensible and giving way to self-pity. Her first aria, expressing breathless infatuation, made a distant impression, but slowly her Dorinda developed into a detailed, endearing character. In an evening of stunningly sung arias, her lovelorn lines in “Se mi rivolgo al prato” lingered on, and the highs and lows of the whirlwind “Amore è qual vento” were a peak of technical brilliance.

Soprano Erin Morley and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke clad the desired couple, Angelica and Medoro, with befitting vocal glamour, diamantine glitter for her and heavy silk velvet for him. In “Vorrei poterti amar”, Medoro’s apology to Dorinda, Ms Cooke tugged a little below pitch, but elsewhere her performance was molten gold, especially her enchanting “Verdi allori”, one of Handel’s gorgeous tributes to vegetation. Ms Morley’s high-centred voice flared brightly at the top and she threaded Angelica’s bravura arias precisely and without a hint of effort. Zoroastro’s series of stunner numbers were entrusted to bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. His lowest notes are not pitch-dark, but his smoothly produced voice has a most comely timbre and his singing grew finer with every entrance. Mr Ketelsen’s rationalist magician was fresh-voiced and lyrical—a young and sexy Gandalf, if you will. Or, in modern terms, a wise and kindly therapist one goes to see when love not only hurts, but breaks. And who would not be consoled by the optimistic “Sorge infausta una procella” sung with such roundness and yards of sleek coloratura?

As it happens, pristine coloratura was in abundant supply all evening, not least from world-class countertenor Iestyn Davies as a guileless Orlando. The orchestra’s gathering speed in the showpiece arias “Fammi combattere” and “Cielo! Se tu il consenti” showed off his unerring agility. During the mad scene, his Orlando was pitifully confused rather than terrifying. With a voice rich and resonant in the middle, but less so at the bottom, Mr Davies had to contend against the lower strings to be heard in “Già latra cerbero”. The subsequent “Vaghe pupille”, in which Orlando imagines the queen of the underworld crying, captured the essence of his superlatively sung portrayal—unaffected pathos in the measured A section and a rankled, brittle psyche in the manic B section. Daring is required to slow down music almost to a standstill for expressive purposes. In Orlando’s sleep aria, “Già l'ebro mio ciglio”, accompanied by two soothing violas, Harry Bicket and Iestyn Davies dared to float their phrases in a torpid haze, creating musical opium. It was just one of the many spellbinding moments of the evening.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Orlando — Iestyn Davies, Dorinda — Carolyn Sampson, Angelica — Erin Morley, Medoro — Sasha Cooke, Zoroastro — Kyle Ketelsen, Conductor & Harpsichord — Harry Bicket, The English Concert. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Monday, 7th March 2016.

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