Haydn: Orlando Paladino

Freiburger Barockorchester/Jacobs (Euroarts: 2 DVD 2057788)

1 March 2010 4.5 stars

OrlandoThis outstanding production of Joseph Haydn's Orlando Paladino was concocted at Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden and recorded live on 8 May, 2009 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. Aside from the focused attention of conductor Antal Doráti in a slew of recordings made in the 1970's, Haydn's operas haven't been given much sustained consideration in modern times. There are good reasons for this relative neglect.

Although he was more than thirty years older than Mozart (and also outlived him by almost two decades), the two composers were nearly exact contemporaries in regard to their individual explorations of the operatic genre. While Haydn was running the theatrical troupe at Eszterháza and feverishly composing operas for performance there, Mozart was cutting his young teeth on such opera seria as Mitridate, re di Ponto and Lucio Silla. For a time, the two might have been considered comparable exemplars of the 'Classical' period: they composed musical dramas that largely held to conventions firmly entrenched for more than a half-century.

However, as Mozart matured and quickly moved away from these conventions (discreet, set-piece arias in ABA' form; excessive embellishment; over-reliance on spectacle rather than emotional verity), Haydn did not. The emotional depth and innate understanding of humanity that imbues the operas of Mozart's mature years are nowhere to be found in Haydn's rather more chaste and uninvolving successions of arias and recitative. We have to go back to the period before Mozart – to such composers as Jommelli, Traetta, Leo, and Porpora – in order to fully appreciate the tradition into which Haydn's operas were born. Divested of much of the overt 'display' and vocal acrobatics found in the works of the aforementioned Italian masters, Haydn's operas are well crafted, thoughtful, and often understated in their effects. Lacking emotional depth and overt display, his arias require patience and musical insight from both performers and listeners in order to engender fullest appreciation.

Luckily, the composer is given every possible measure of respect, talent, and enthusiasm in this production of Orlando Paladino. It is far and away the most successful rendering of his operatic music I have ever experienced. The opera itself is a bit problematic, in that it falls into the genre Dramma eroicomico (Heroic comedy). It combines threads of comedy, fantasy, and tragedy, and interweaves them with magic, sorcery, and pastoral themes. Some of the characters are exclusively 'tragic' (Angelica, Medoro), others are 'comedic' (Eurilla, Pasquale), and still others straddle between, and defy simple classification (Alcina, Rodomonte, Orlando). The libretto was fashioned by the poet-in-residence at Eszterháza, Nunziato Porta, who adapted a pre-existing libretto by Francesco Badini, taken from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. The plot, though full of enough twists and turns to confuse even the most dedicated listener, boils down to this: the lovers Angelica and Medoro are pursued by the 'mad' knight Orlando (himself in love with Angelica) until the sorceress Alcina intervenes, restoring Orlando's sanity and allowing the young lovers to live happily ever after. This simple story is told in nearly three hours of music, spread over three acts and 53 numbers. And thanks to the Berlin forces, it all flies by deftly and beautifully. To judge from the track listing, there have been a couple of minor cuts and an extra aria for Alcina has been interpolated from Haydn's Il mondo della luna. Frankly, the whole thing sparkles brightly and gives immense pleasure from beginning to end.

The stage production is by turns baffling, touching, and hilarious. To an extent, the production is cartoonish, with overblown images (enormous scissors, forests of artificial Christmas trees, severed limbs), but these devices never distract from the music and singing. The rear portion of the set, designed by Nigel Lowery, slides back and forth to reveal different scenery at regular intervals - often during scenes, while the singers offer arias at the front of the stage. Frankly, the convoluted plot could take place anywhere, but the original setting is 'an island in the Indian Ocean'. No hint of this is given by the Berlin production, but it hardly matters. While the stage elements are eclectic – and often difficult to put sense to – they offer many arresting images that linger in the mind, and are enhanced by Olaf Freese's excellent lighting. Lowery's modern-dress costumes are equally perplexing, with a mixture of military influences (even for the shepherdess, Eurilla) and fantasy (Rodomonte in pirate gear, complete with eye-patch and wooden crutch). Surprisingly, all of these disparate effects create an entertaining puzzle – essentially reflecting the convoluted plot in their complex absurdity. Choreographer Amir Hosseinpour adds fuel to the fire with an intricate set of hand movements – almost like sign language – tailored to each character. The more 'buffo' characters (Eurilla, Pasquale) spend most of their time on stage gesturing wildly, while singing difficult music to perfection. The effect is both ridiculous and oddly satisfying: we almost come to know the characters better through their personalized hand movements. It would have been wonderful to have either detailed notes from the director printed in the DVD booklet, or even better, a few DVD extras with interviews and explanations in order to hear directly from the production team about their motivations and ideas. As it is, we're left on our own to try and decipher the production details, and it's a very entertaining challenge.

Of course, all of the aforementioned stage business would grow quickly tiresome without first-rate performances from the singers, and I can't imagine a finer ensemble cast than the one assembled here by the superb conductor René Jacobs. For his part in the proceedings, Jacobs conducts the 42-member Freiburger Barockorchester with all the diligence, flair, and respect Haydn's music deserves. Every tempo seems ideal, and he supports the singers with absolute assurance, allowing them to both sing brilliantly and manage the intricate blocking demanded by the production team. The orchestral sonorities have been captured faithfully on the DVD, with excellent clarity throughout, giving utmost definition to the individual musicians. Among the singers, none stands out more than the others, for this opera requires an ensemble cast in the truest sense, and one weak link would spoil the party. Marlis Petersen brings great nobility and glowing tone to the long-suffering Angelica. Dressed in black as a disheveled beauty queen, Petersen handles the isolated coloratura fluently, using it to enhance the drama in moments like her aria 'Non partir, mia bella face'. Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska is absolutely brilliant as the sorceress Alcina, acting up a storm and giving an edgy lunacy to her character. Her singing is superb throughout, making the inclusion of the extra aria 'Ragion nell'alma siede' a bonus for the listener. As Angelica's lover Medoro, Magnus Staveland sings with sweet fluency – if slightly anonymously – in a thankless role.

Tom Randle, as the crazed Orlando, illuminates every moment on stage with ringing tone and concise diction. His subtle acting avoids the risk of caricature while allowing the humor in Orlando's madness to register amidst his 'tragic' motives. Pietro Spagnoli nearly overplays his role as the blustering Rodomonte, but his singing is first rate, and he anchors many of the scenes in which Randle's raging insanity is unleashed. There is no praise high enough for the singers of the two comedic characters Eurilla and Pasquale. I have admired Sunhae Im in several of Jacobs' Mozart recordings, but never more so than here, where she is a delight to watch on stage. Her character, by turns timid and cajoling, is sung to perfection – including some very difficult coloratura – and acted with charm and keen intelligence. Victor Torres – a name new to me – is nothing short of astounding as Rodomonte's squire (and Eurilla's love interest) Pasquale. He has several outrageously well-sung (and hilarious) scenes, with the absolute highlight being 'Ecco spiano, ecco il mio trillo' in Act 2. In this scene, he imitates all sorts of vocal techniques – including some spot-on falsetto – and even wanders through the orchestra pit while drawing conductor Jacobs himself into the drama.

With all forces combining to create a wonderful evening's entertainment, I must report that I did experience a few minor glitches in my copy of the DVD. There were only a few such moments, and perhaps these problems are isolated to my copy. Also, as mentioned above, there are absolutely no DVD 'extras' which is a shame, as this is precisely the type of production for which the audience could benefit from interviews or at least a detailed synopsis. But please don't let these minor detractions keep you from acquiring this release. Never before has Haydn been so well served. There are enough intricacies in this production of Orlando Paladino to allow for many enjoyable viewings.

By David Laviska