The chariot, cloud, and eagle stage machines were gone. So were the genies, fountains, and caverns, and the lush period costumes. But despite the bare set and the singers' minimally modified concert dress, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's semi-staged performance of Handel's Orlando (1733) still managed to conjure up fireworks.
The PBO's season-ender was a revival of a production originally created for the 2008 Göttingen Handel Festival, and it had also travelled to the Drottningholm Slottsteater last year with the same cast. Artistic director Nicholas McGegan has now brought this cast home with him to California, and while director and Baroque choreographer Catherine Turocy's staging was left behind in Europe, the appreciative crowd at First Congregational Church in Berkeley did not seem to mind. And that's saying quite a lot, given that three and a half hours of exit arias can wear the patience of even the most avid West Coast early music fan.
The success of the performance can be attributed to three factors: Handel's novel score, which bucks virtually every opera-seria trend of its day; McGegan's typically fleet, jovial hand with his singers and instrumentalists; and finally, the cast's long history with this production, which resulted (for most of the singers, anyway) in a relaxed stage presence and a depth of portrayal that is found all too rarely in semi-stagings. Here was music that was not simply sung, but felt as well.
Countertenor William Towers gave an assured account of a title role with a dubious legacy: it was the last Handel would write for Senesino, and its relative lack of pyrotechnics—compounded by a difficult, seriocomic mad scene that extends over two acts—is generally believed to be responsible for (or, at the very least, a manifestation of) the growing rift between the composer and his leading castrato. Tower has a lovely, resonant voice and adroit technique. He delivered a witty, fourth-wall-breaking trio cadenza with the two French horns at the conclusion of his Act I aria, "Non fu già men forte Alcide," and a heartbreaking performance of the lulling Act III arioso, "Già l'ebro mio ciglio." The delicate chamber texture of the latter was marred, however, by some glaring wrong notes in the opening ritornello; the soli parts were originally written for a pair of violette marine and are usually performed on viole d'amore, which were somehow mishandled in the pit.
The centerpiece of any account of the title role is surely the Act II finale, "Ah! stigie larve," in which Orlando, driven mad by grief and jealousy, imagines himself a kind of anti-Orfeo, rowing over the River Styx to Hades (accompanied by Handel's coloristic 5/8 meter) to exact revenge on his "Proserpine." I wanted Towers to loosen his tie a bit more in this mad scene: his affect remained too poised and restrained, diluting the shock of the disorienting collage of tempi (the declamatory fury of "Già latra Cerbero," the recurrent, insipidly anempathic gavotte of "Vaghe, pupille," the passacaglia of "Che del pianto," and finally the rage of "Ma sì, sì, sì, pupille, sì"). But with such an adventurous and reliable voice, and a long career ahead of him, Towers will have plenty of opportunity to take equally bold risks as an actor.
Handel gives the pair of lovers, Angelica and Medoro, little to match Orlando's novelties, but Dominique Labelle (Angelica) and Diana Moore (Medoro) executed their roles with peerless grace. Labelle, a frequent McGegan collaborator, is a luminous soprano, but she can also pull the audience in with her in a well-chosen piano passage, as in the pastoral B section of her "Verdi piante." Her seamless tone across the registers was put to particularly good use in a roller-coaster portamento down two octaves and back during the cadenza to "Non potrà dirmi ingrata." Moore's was a deft, complex take both on Medoro and the trouser role more generally, and her vocal strengths clearly exceed the relatively unremarkable part. Both singers shined in the concluding trio to Act I, "Consolati, o bella," weaving their lines together with the relish of reuniting lovers even as they ostensibly seek to comfort Dorinda. As Zoroastro, Wolf-Matthias Friedrich made for a proficient coloratura bass, though his delivery was somewhat one-dimensional, and he tended to swallow the outer edges of his messe di voce.
Unfortunately, Susanne Rydén as Dorinda showed few of the advantages that should have come with three consecutive seasons in the same production. Signs of Rydén's discomfort included a garbled tone at the beginnings of phrases, a tendency to go flat in moments of pathos, and an unsuccessful employment of slapstick. To be fair, hers is perhaps the most challenging of the five roles. Originally written for celebrated intermezzo soubrette Celeste Gismondi, it displays a demanding tessitura, with "Amor è qual vento" including extensive singing at the bottom of the staff. Dramaturgically, it is something of an anomaly: the program notes observe (somewhat apologetically) that "in view of the numerous moments of deeply felt emotion, to what extent [Dorinda's] role, and indeed the entire opera, is to be read in terms of ironic observation or as a parody on the Roland material is hard to say—today's directors and singers are called upon to develop their own thoughts on the issue." Perhaps Rydén was a victim of misguided or underbaked direction: those "moments of deeply felt emotion" were too few and far between, and she remained wedded to the coy soubrette affect even when the text directly contravened it. Rydén is more of a lyric soprano, specializing in roles like Poppea, Minerva, and Dido, and one suspects the castrato role Teseo that she is planning to sing at Göttingen next year will be better suited to her strengths.
Photo Credits: Randy Beach
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