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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Orlando, HWV31, Opera in three acts (King’s Theatre, 1733)
Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor) - Orlando
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano) - Angelica
Kristina Hammarström (mezzo) - Medoro
Sunhae Im (soprano) - Dorinda
Konstantin Wolff (bass) - Zoroastro
B’Rock Baroque Orchestra Ghent/René Jacobs
rec. 2013, Concertgebouw, Bruges
Text and translation included.
ARCHIV 4792199 [2 CDs: 159:58]

Like Handel’s other ‘magic’ opera, Alcina, Orlando has a libretto based on Ariosto’s renaissance epic Orlando Furioso, a work also raided by Vivaldi (twice) and Haydn. There was a historical Roland, but the author of the Old French Chanson de Roland was already playing fast and loose with history in ascribing his ambush and death at Roncesvalles to Saracens – the forces which attacked him were more Basque Christians than Moslem. Ariosto embellished the story further by making him go mad for love.

The Handel authority Winton Dean regarded Orlando as the composer’s masterpiece and I see no reason to challenge that judgement, especially as we have been so fortunate in the accounts that have been made on record. As seen on stage, there’s plenty of spectacle, represented on audio recordings by lots of noises-off. There are several of these on this recording, but there’s also depth to Orlando’s madness and recovery, which has been compared, not fancifully, to the lovers’ ordeals in Zauberflöte.

I referred to this recording way back in 2014, in reviewing an older recording directed by Christopher Hogwood, with Emma Kirkby, Arleen Augér, Catherine Robbin, James Bowman, David Thomas and The Academy of Ancient Music, reissued on Decca Eloquence 4808813. I finally caught up with the Jacobs courtesy of Qobuz offering the download, with pdf booklet, for a ridiculously inexpensive £1.49 (16-bit) or £2.49 (24-bit). I’m sure that’s a mistake – snap it up if it’s still available.

The older Eloquence is also something of a bargain, currently reduced from £11.25 to £9.00 by Presto and another older recording is also still worth considering: Les Arts Florissants and William Christie (Erato 2564677430, around £19, or with Alcina, Warner 2564696532, around £25 – review review). I could also be very happy with a more recent recording with Alexander Weimann at the helm (Atma ACD22678 – DL News 2013/15). Those attracted to Hogwood’s way with Handel may wish to note the 22-CD super-budget set, on offer for around £59 (Decca 4828103: includes Acis and Galatea, Alceste, Athaliah, Comus, Esther, Messiah, Orlando and Rinaldo). Be aware, however, that if you purchased the Decca Baroque Era set or the download of Part 1 – the latter still available, but no longer a bargain – you already have most of these.

All in all, I shall turn to the DG Archiv in future, along with the Eloquence. Those who dislike Rene Jacobs’ extremes of tempi and even occasional tampering with the text should stay clear, but none of the tinkering in Orlando troubled me. I’ve been looking around for a long time for a recording which recalled some of the excitement of a performance at Sadler’s Wells, directed by Anthony Lewis many years ago (1966) in which Janet Baker was a memorable Orlando. The recording which she made in 1963, with April Cantelo, Heather Harper and the ECO directed by Arnold Goldsborough was briefly available on a 2-CD set on the Ponto label; someone is asking £135.61 for it, so I think I shall have to pass that up, but I hope that someone else reissues it.

Bejun Mehta’s counter-tenor Orlando is, of course, more authentic than Janet Baker’s interpertation of a role composed for the show-off castrato Senesimo. There’s plenty of show in Mehta’s interpretation, though he’s never over the top. If the modern counter-tenors cannot quite reach the top notes as comfortably as Senesimo would have, it’s not a major problem. Perhaps Philippe Jaroussky would be ideal in that regard, but his voice might not have the heft for some of the role. He’s recorded Vivaldi’s Orlando but not, I think any of the arias from Handel’s Orlando.

The heart of this opera lies in Orlando’s breakdown in Act Two: imagining that ghosts from the underworld have stolen his beloved Angelica, he resolves to pursue them (Ah Stigie larve!) until Persephone, queen of the underworld, shares his grief and he bids her cease her tears (Vaghe pupille, non piangete). Magdalena Kožená includes a most dramatic performance of this on her album of Handel arias, Ah! Mio cor, DG Archiv 4776547 (Recording of the Month – review). Christopher Howell though that she eclipsed James Bowman on the Hogwood recording and, though I warned that this album wouldn’t be to all tastes – DL Roundup December 2009 – I was impressed all over again in listening for comparison with the new complete opera. My only reservation is that at the rather fast tempo Vaghe pupille is over all too soon – I wanted to hear those extra two minutes which Mehta gives us, so affective and effective is the interpretation – and that such intensity probably couldn’t be kept up for the whole opera.

Yes, Bowman and Hogwood and even Mehta and Jacobs sound a bit penny plain after that tupenny- coloured version. Even so, in the context of the whole opera both turn in very creditable performances. Owen Willets on the Atma recording directed by Weimann sounds a trifle mezzo-plummy. Bowman sounds far from plummy and gives us more of Vaghe pupille, here tracked separately, confirming my belief that he holds his own even against Mehta in the title role. Both may be less ‘involved’ than Kožená, but ultimately easier to live with. Indeed, I see that one reviewer, though impressed with the whole Kožená album, singled the Orlando extract out as making the hero sound like ‘a beer-drinking chav in the Big Brother house’.

The major glory of the Hogwood recording is to be found in Emma Kirkby’s singing of Dorinda; for me any recording in which she appears is top-drawer, but Sunhae Im comes very close indeed. And while David Thomas on the earlier recording is a powerful Zoroastro, the Merlin-like figure around whom much of the action revolves and who was originally sung by Antonio Montagnana, Konstantin Wolff also gives a powerful account of the role. He’s on stage right from the outset, always an exposed position, but it’s no problem for him. He has clearly grown into the role since the Arthaus DVD – review.

I know that some find Sophie Karthäuser’s vibrato as Angelica off-putting, but it didn’t trouble me any more than Jacobs’ interventions. Kristina Hammarström brings the character of Medoro to life.

With very good recording and a fine booklet, this recording is certain to become part of my Handel listening experience. For my Desert Island, however, it would still have to be Hogwood and his team. If someone were to dig out the tapes of the Sadler’s Wells performance, with Janet Baker, however … And if a decent DVD or blu-ray video Orlando were to be on offer … But not the Arthaus which, in any case, seems to have disappeared.

Brian Wilson

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