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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Orlando – Opera in three Acts (1733)
Orlando – Christophe Dumaux (countertenor)
Angelica – Elena de La Merced (soprano)
Medoro – Jean Michel Fumas (countertenor)
Dorinda – Rachel Nicholls (soprano)
Zoroastro – Alain Buet (baritone)
La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy/Jean-Claude Malgoire
rec. live, 4 March 2008, Théatre municipal de Tourcoing, France
Booklet notes and synopsis in English, French, Italian, and German
Italian libretto
PAN CLASSICS PC10392 [3 CDs: 157:34]

With Orlando, Handel returned to form after his fortunes had been severely hindered by the double blow of the success of The Beggar's Opera and the establishment of a rival opera company. The opera is based upon some episodes from the great Renaissance epic, Orlando furioso by Ariosto. The larger-than-life characters and fantastical incidents fired the composer's imagination to produce a richly varied score. It transcended the usual restraints of Baroque opera seria, with its elevated themes and strict musical form comprising chains of recitatives and arias. Indeed, Jean-Claude Malgoire asks in the brief booklet essay: “Must ‘opera seria’ be serious?”. He points out that the qualifying term ‘seria’ first appears only in the 1780s.

Malgoire is a veteran pioneer of historically informed performance practice and of the revival of many such works from the Baroque. He should have been an ideal conductor to bring such a masterwork to life, especially in view of the fact that in his other opera recordings he tends to invest considerable vigour in his interpretations. This recording – from a live performance in the theatre, with the ensemble he founded – does very little justice to either Handel’s opera or Malgoire’s reputation, and it seems unfortunate that it was released hard on the heels of his recent death. At times, it seems more like a parody of his performing style.

After a surprisingly sluggish Overture, the arias tend to be taken at a brisk pace, but they lack nuance and polish. This often makes them an inconsequential plod through the notes rather than revealing any idiomatic style or interpretative insight. The continuo harpsichord also emphasises that result as it is caught close up in the recorded sound, often getting in the way of overall sonic balance. Malgoire’s brisk, robust approach does work well in one of the most extraordinary moments in the score, when Handel depicts Orlando's descent into madness with a brief passage in an irregular 5/8 meter. Rather than adopt a more usual Andante speed for that, Malgoire’s rendition actually brings out better Orlando's unsettled frame of mind. But much else simply sounds routine.

Originating in a live stage performance, this recording fails to capture the singers at their best, and is not helped by the recessed sound. Christophe Dumaux’s generally soft, fluid countertenor would have served the part of Orlando well if he had not seemingly come under pressure to declaim the part in the theatre. He is not unattractive to listen to. Even so, the frequent tremulous vibrato of his delivery would have been more effective if it had been reserved for his extended mad scene at the end of Act Two, rather than his default means of characterisation throughout the opera. For all the accuracy of his coloratura in ‘Fammi combattere’, the vibrato makes the vocal line fussy. That said, Dumaux does attain a quiet nobility in his last number ‘Gia l’ebro mio ciglio’, accompanied by a silvery-toned viola d’amore which lends the aria a restful solemnity.

Elena de la Merced as Angelica, the princess with whom Orlando falls hopelessly in love, sings with generally alluring voice, as she should. Her cavatina ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ could have been more ravishing, though; it fell hostage to Malgoire's hard-driven approach. In her succeeding aria ‘Chi possessore’, taking the trouble to cultivate more variety in dynamics would have yielded something much more enticing. By contrast, the shepherdess Dorinda receives a commanding interpretation by Rachel Nicholls. She projects her music with impressive force, even in a number such as ‘O care parolette’ which could let up more in tension.

Jean Michel Fumas in the other countertenor role, Medoro, is musically more focused if less vocally distinguished than Dumaux’s Orlando. Again, Malgoire’s too-hasty approach spoils the sublime simplicity of ‘Verdi allori’. Its harmonies and suspensions are skated over unfeelingly, and not sufficiently caressed. Alain Buet is rather thick-voiced, sounding more like a caricature villain than the sorcerer Zoroastro, who ought to convey more authority and gravitas than he does here.

No doubt this release preserves a faithful record of the live performance in the opera house with all the drive and pace that required. But without any visual element, it lacks the variety and interest that repays repeated listening on disc, making rival CD recordings by William Christie (review) and Christopher Hogwood wholly preferable. There are no translations alongside the original Italian libretto in the sleeve notes, and no other commentary or writing about the opera specifically, apart from Malgoire’s general reflections on the genre of opera seria and Orlando as a type of that. That is why the set is only likely to appeal to Handel completists.

Curtis Rogers

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