George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Patricia Bardon (mezzo) – Orlando; Rosemary Joshua (soprano) – Angelica; Hilary Summers (alto) – Medoro; Rosa Mannion (soprano) – Dorinda; Harry van der Kamp (bass) – Zoroastro; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 16-23 January and 5-6 March 1996
Synopsis in English and German enclosed. A copy of the Italian libretto can be found at www.haendel.it/composizioni/libretti/pdf/hwv_31.pdf
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 67743-0 [3 CDs: 65:00 + 51:34 + 52:13]
Orlando, opened at King’s Theatre in London 27 January 1733 and ran for ten performances, whereupon it disappeared and was not seen again until 6 May 1959 at Abingdon. It is based on Ariosto’s Orlando furioso as was also Alcina and Ariodante. The title role was written for the great castrato Senesino. This production had its origin at Aix-en-Provence in 1933, directed by Robert Carsen.
The story, condensed to a one-liner (well, not quite), goes: Orlando, a brave Christian soldier, falls in love with a pagan princess, Angelica, who is in love with Medoro. Orlando goes mad but is rescued by a magician, Zoroastro who brings him back to sanity.
To sort this out Handel needed 2 hours, 48 minutes and 47 seconds – but these almost three hours are filled with marvellous music, as are almost all the 42 operas that he wrote. True, there are quite long recitatives, and with only the synopsis at hand they are not always easy to follow, but as soon as we reach the next aria Handel works his magic. There are several recitatives accompagnato and also a number of duets and a long trio that concludes act I.
The overture opens with a solemn lentement followed by an allegro, rather less furioso than the title of the original epic suggests. But what follows is a cornucopia of splendid vocal pieces, almost all of them with a personal Handelian twist – had it been a painting instead of an aria one would have seen the signature in the lower right-hand corner. Zoroastro’s Lascia Amore (Leave Love and follow Mars, the god of war)(CD 1 tr. 5) is a riveting calling-card, the martial character of the piece is very clear. Warlike is also Orlando’s Fammi combattere (CD 1 tr. 19), sung to Angelica telling her ‘that he would fight the most terrible monsters to show the strength of his love’ (Quote from the synopsis). With cheeky trumpets, springy rhythms and rich embellishments this is a tour de force and one realises that Senesino was a virtuoso – and so is Patricia Bardon! Another highlight is Angelica’s farewell aria Verdi piante (CD 2, tr. 10) – a moving song with delicious scoring. The finale of act II, a solo scene for Orlando with a recitativo accompagnato followed by an arioso and then the most famous aria from this opera, Vaghe pupille, non piangere (CD 2 tr. 12-14) is Handel at his most dramatically apt. It is not as melodically memorable as so much else of his writing but there is true drama and he points forward to even the 19th century in some respects.
In the third act Medoro’s Vorrei poteri (CD 3 tr. 2) is very beautiful, and loveably sung by Hilary Summers. Again Handel shows his inventiveness in the scene where the Orlando-Dorinda duet is followed by Orlando’s aria Già lo stringo (CD 3 tr. 4-5). I have written this before but I never cease to marvel at Handel’s perpetual creativeness, his ability to, within the baroque formulae, always produce fresh and stimulating music. Even in the recitatives he surprises with touches of genius, making the characters come to life. His peak as an opera composer was a decade earlier, with master pieces like Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, but he was still near those heights also in Orlando – and Alcina, which followed two years later.
William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants, in residence at the Théâtre de Caen, have been one of the foremost ensembles in the early music camp since 1979 and I haven’t heard a mediocre recording with them. It was, at least during the early stages, the French music that, naturally enough, was closest to them and performances and recordings of the works by Lully and, most notably, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, have long been established classics. But Purcell, Handel and even Mozart have been taken in the stride with similar high standards and this set is no exception.
Christie has also managed to surround himself with the best singers in the genre. I have already expressed my enthusiasm over Patricia Bardon’s technically accomplished and dramatically intense reading of the title role, and Rosemary Joshua’s Angelica is an ideal counterpart: beautiful, warm and secure. As her lover Medoro Hilary Summers dark contralto contrasts well with Ms Joshua’s lighter voice. Se il cor mai ti dirà (CD 1 tr. 15) shows her full and rounded voice in best possible light and she continues to impress throughout the performance. Rosa Mannion is a bright and lively Dorinda and Harry van der Kamp’s well-equalized and sonorous bass voice with impeccable technique makes him a great Zoroastro. Just listen to his act III aria Sorge infausta (CD 3 tr. 10).
The lack of libretto is lamentable but that is my only complaint. There is a somewhat earlier recording with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which I haven’t heard, but with singers like James Bowman, Arleen Auger, Emma Kirkby and David Thomas it must be competitive. I was deeply impressed by William Christie and his colleagues and at Warner’s new price - it was originally issued by Erato - it’s worth anyone’s money.
I was deeply impressed by William Christie and his colleagues and at Warner’s new price it’s worth anyone’s money.