Orlando was the last of Handel’s operas to be written for the alto castrato, Senesino. After the first run of the opera, which achieved ten performances, there was a hiatus. Then Senesino and almost Handel’s entire cast defected to the rival Opera of the Nobility and Handel never revived the opera again. The quirky nature of the piece probably contributed something to Handel’s split with Senesino. The role of Orlando, so fascinating to our modern sensibilities, offered Senesino few opportunities for display; the role actually has only two da capo arias. Orlando’s descent into madness is depicted with psychological insight and drama rather than being used as an excuse for virtuosity, which is presumably what Senesino expected.
Orlando is the first of three operas which Handel wrote based on Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso; the other operas being Alcina and Ariodante. Despite this august parentage, the basic plot of the opera is a simple love triangle. Orlando loves Angelica, but Angelica has been caring for Medoro, who has been wounded in battle, and Angelica has fallen in love with him. Medoro has been sheltered by the shepherdess Dorinda. Dorinda loves Medoro, but he returns Angelica’s love. The resulting travails of love make Dorinda melancholy but turn Orlando mad.
Into this mix, Handel introduced the role of the magician Zoroastro, specifically to show off the talents of the brilliant bass Montangna and it is Zoroastro who becomes the presiding genius of the plot, finally curing Orlando of his madness. The opera opens with a magnificent Arioso for Zoroastro as he contemplates the stars.
The opera has been lucky on disc, Christopher Hogwood recorded it with James Bowman in the title role and William Christie did so with Patricia Bardon. Both recordings were based on stage productions. This recording from Christie - now re-issued at budget price - was made two years after Robert Carsen’s Aix-en-Provence festival production of the opera.
Christie has assembled a strong cast. Handel cast Orlando as a castrato and Medoro as a female contralto, but both roles lie within the counter-tenor range. Orlando lies quite low; Handel’s later parts for Senesino do not go above D or E at the top of the treble stave. Bardon copes with the tessitura brilliantly and never sounds pushed or forced. Only in the ornaments, when she tends to migrate upwards, do we get a sense of the part’s lowness. She brings a quiet brilliance to the role and a darkness of timbre which is entirely admirable.
Hilary Summers is similarly impressive as Medoro. This is a more traditionally written role and Medoro pairs with Angelica in entirely conventional opera seria fashion, thus giving us a lovely duet of parting. As the secondo uomo, inevitably, Medoro rather drops out of the action after the first scene of Act 3. This is a shame as Summers is a singer whose work I admire greatly; she brings a nice cleanness of attack to her passagework.
As Angelica, Rosemary Joshua has a fine-toned bright voice, with a nice ability to float an elegant line. She and Summers make a fine pair and you sense her puzzlement at dealing with an admirer who is losing his wits. Dorinda is almost a soubrette part, but Handel gives her a strong vein of melancholy though the original singer was known for her buffo roles. Rosa Mannion as Dorinda emphasises this melancholy side to the character, giving her at times a seriousness which balances Joshua.
Harry van Kampen is a strong Zoroastro, articulating the passagework with admirable clarity and bringing a resonant authority to the role. Zoroastro needs to impress us and van Kampen certainly does.
This was only Christie’s second Handel recording, but he brings all his familiar sensitivity to the work. The results are entirely admirable and the performance is highly recommendable. It is however instructive to compare the recording to Hogwood’s. Hogwood and his players seem to articulate Handel’s music more, bringing more air between the notes, whereas Christie and his band give the music a fine smoothness of texture. Hogwood’s singers are equally characterful. Whereas Christie’s quartet of lovers are cast with pairs of high and low voices whose voice types do not differ significantly, Hogwood has four highly different singers. He pairs Bowman’s counter-tenor Orlando with a mezzo-soprano Medoro. Hogwood’s sopranos are similarly contrasting, with Emma Kirkby emphasising the lighter, soubrette side of Dorinda and Arleen Auger bringing a larger-voiced grandeur to Angelica.
I have to confess that I rather like the vocal contrasts of Hogwood’s quartet. I find Christie’s singers, however admirable, a little bit too close in timbre for comfort. This is a performance where you may need to consult the track-listing to check who is singing, though this might not be a problem for everyone.
As befits the disc’s budget price status, there is no libretto simply a track-listing and a detailed synopsis. The booklet gives the web location of the Italian libretto.
This disc has already been issued in the box set of Christie’s Handel operas containing both Alcina and Orlando; so you are presented with a bewildering range of choices; Hogwood or Christie, and if Christie, which packaging. Whether you choose Hogwood or Christie will depend on how you feel about their casting and their differing approaches, each is equally valid. But if you choose this set then you will gain a strong performance, beautifully sung and sensitively played.