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S & H Opera Review

Handel ‘Orlando’, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 20th October 2003 (ME)


A production of rare intelligence, performed by a cast of genuine Handelian singers – who could ask for more? Certainly, no one familiar with Baroque or Renaissance iconography could fail to be delighted by the stage pictures, just as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Handelian performance style as it has been informed by the last 20 years of scholarship would be sure to admire the singing. ‘Orlando,’ with its tiny cast and exposed intimacy, its emotional impact so close at times to that of Mozart’s ‘Figaro’ and ‘Così,’ had not previously been staged by the Royal Opera, so the time was right – doubly so given last season’s revival of ‘Semele,’ since everything that was wrong about that production – trite sets, arch interaction between principals, often inappropriate singing – was made right here, with beautiful and meaningful sets, sensitive understanding of the ways in which conflicts between individuals can be made vivid to an audience and above all elegant and authentic singing.

Remarkably, the production had survived a major cast change, in that the Orlando of the first performances, the mezzo soprano Alice Coote, had withdrawn owing to illness and been replaced by the ‘original’ Medoro, the American counter tenor Bejun Mehta, making his house debut – his own role then being assumed by another Covent Garden debutant, the British counter tenor William Towers. Some initial nervousness aside, one would hardly have known, such was the assurance with which the singers performed their parts: but when the production is right, it has to be easy for singers to fit into it, simply because good opera direction is founded upon the needs of the singing actors who must bear its weight.

Mehta has been the darling of U.S. counter tenor fanciers for some time now: indeed, I recall one fervent gentleman’s 500 word diatribe in which he more or less threatened me with legal action for a comment which merely suggested that Andreas Scholl was today’s leading example of this particular voice – apparently only Mehta is the fruit of the true vine, or something. Well, at the risk of further frothing, I stand by my view about Scholl, but must say that Mehta is superb in quite a different way: of the counter-tenor instruments with which I am familiar I would say that his is closest to Daniel Taylor’s in that the voice is fairly small, essentially unheroic in dimension and timbre, but beautifully coloured and flexible. Like Taylor (and unlike one or two other counter-tenors who had better be nameless) he is also an excellent actor, handsome, noble in bearing and dashing in demeanour, and he was totally convincing during the hero’s ‘mad’ passages as well as his more tender moments. I’m not at all surprised that he has a following: his stage presence is positively magnetic, and he knows how to convey the import of a small dialogue just as effectively as that of a bravura aria. I will say more about his ‘Già l’ebro mio ciglio’ later in the context of its setting, but for now, once he had got over a rather rocky ‘Fammi combattere,’ his singing was beautiful, accurate and fluent, ‘Vaghe pupille’ being especially finely done, and ‘Per far mia diletta’ deeply engaging.

William Towers has an almost equally lovely voice, perhaps just lacking that exciting edge possessed by Mehta, and he was a sweetly vulnerable, eminently credible Medoro: his soft singing is especially lovely, and his contribution to the exquisite Act 1 trio ‘Consolati,o bella’ was one of the evening’s great joys: a notable debut.

Barbara Bonney and Camilla Tilling were the Angelica and Dorinda, and a finer pair would be hard to find: this is what Handel sopranos should sound like – agile, flexible tone, secure ornamentation and a sense that both arias and recitatives are there to advance the narrative and amplify the characters’ emotional crises and not just to comfortably display the singers’ personalities. Bonney’s lovely presence (how fabulous she looked in every costume) and her limpid, fluent singing gave constant pleasure, nowhere more so than in her last act aria where Angelica prevents Orlando’s suicide. Tilling was her equal both vocally and dramatically: ‘Quando spieghi I tuoi tormenti’ was meltingly sung and acted with the sympathy and commitment which characterized her performance throughout.

I am at a loss to understand why one of my esteemed colleagues found it necessary to write that Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as Zoroastro was merely at the level of a promising student: true, he may not have ‘…sung the bass with a voice like a Canon’ as Montagnana did, but then how many basses could? Lemalu was a promising student when I first wrote about his RCM performances two years ago, but he has now gone much of the way to fulfilling his potential, and I don’t know of a living bass who sings music like ‘Sorge, infausta’ with any more authority.

Harry Bicket, well known to ENO and other audiences as a fine Handel conductor, directed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a lovingly shaped, non-idiosyncratic reading of the score, mercifully free from over-personal distortions either of tempi or articulation. One might have wished for greater forcefulness at some of the more heightened moments, but otherwise this was a distinguished house debut in a fully staged opera for both conductor and orchestra.

I was surprised at the dislike for this production expressed by my so-called ‘mainstream’ colleagues, but then most of them liked last year’s ‘Semele,’ so we’re obviously looking for different things. What I want is authentic, committed, beautiful singing, which I certainly got last night: it’s perfectly possible, of course, that those favoured with attending the first night were not so fortunate in this respect, but what could not have been different was the production, and to call it empty and pretentious seems to me to reveal a lack of knowledge of the kind of symbols and images which were part of the intellectual equipment of most educated persons of the 18th century, and which should still be integral to the thought of the more scholarly even in the 21st.

Francisco Negrin’s direction and Anthony Baker’s designs achieved the primary aim of allowing the narrative and emotions to unfold, but they spoke to much more than that, for those able to hear: using images from Raphael (the fallen knight, the distant towers) Botticelli (Venus, Mars) and most powerfully the Dutch ‘Light Box’ or ‘Perspective Show’ employed to evoke the most contained, intimate and yet also rational moments, they provided a context for ‘Orlando’ which not only respected the conventions of the time when the work was written, but also preserved Ariosto’s vision of the ‘furioso’ hero, temperamentally ill equipped for the urbane and finally triumphing over himself. Equally impressively, it replicated the production style of Handel’s day in the sense that everything was on an intimate scale.

Much of the highly evocative backdrop was derived from paintings by Poussin and Claude, and it’s hard to see how this highly appropriate setting could be objected to, unless of course it wasn’t recognized – perish the thought. For once, the revolve actually made sense, too, allowing Angelica’s many bouts of fleeing to appear plausible, and the dancers representing Mars, Eros and Venus were entirely apt, since human frailty is throughout observed and fought over by the personae of Love and War.

Such a great work as ‘Orlando’ would be worth staging even in an absolutely trivial, stupidly miscast and stand – and – deliver production, but when given with this kind of style it is an emblem of what the Royal Opera House should be all about. In conclusion, two examples must suffice to illustrate both the work’s power and the production’s merit. The first act ends with a trio almost equal to ‘Soave sia il vento’ in its profound interweaving of the voices, at once consolatory and sorrowful, and the singing of ‘Consolati, o bella’ was as subtle and beautiful as anyone could wish, with direction which piercingly highlighted the emotions of each character whilst respecting the music’s ensemble.

The opera’s finest moment, for me, comes at the close of the penultimate scene, where Orlando is overcome with sleep: enclosed in the perspective box like eighteenth century curiosities, the characters live out their emotions in music that is alternately calm and furious, until with ‘Già l’ebro mio ciglio’ a sense of blissful yet expectant repose is established: Handel specifies a ‘violetta marina’ for the accompaniment here, and since such an instrument is unknown today, a viola d’amore was used, to the most haunting effect imaginable – as the voice and instrument blend as one, the stage is frozen as the curtain slowly closes in an echo of the closing eyelids – perfection, and Mehta’s singing of the final lines was vividly poetic as well as mellifluously beautiful. This production was as much an example of what the Royal Opera should be doing as its overwhelming ‘Wozzeck,’ staged at the same time last year.


Melanie Eskenazi

Photo Credit: © BILL COOPER

ORLANDO by George Frideric Handel
Royal Opera 10/03

Conductor: Harry Bicket
Director: Francisco Negrin
Designer: Anthony Baker
Lighting: Wolfgang Gobbel
Choreography: Ana Yepes



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