A vivid concert performance of Handel’s Orlando brings out its magical elements

In the midst of appearances at Garsington Opera as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Iestyn Davies took the title role in one of the sorts of Baroque opera that served Britten as a musical inspiration in the unusual decision, in the middle of the 20th century, for writing an operatic countertenor role. Like Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare, Handel’s Orlando also comprises a scenario of fantasy and magic, ultimately based upon a great literary source (Ariosto’s Orlando furioso) and featuring confused, jealous pairs of lovers.

Despite spending much of the narrative in a distracted state because of a misplaced love, Davies’s Orlando exhibited utmost musical security and control, all the more impressive in that he sang most of it from memory. Razor-sharp coloratura in animated arias, and a seamless grasp of the shifting moods and visions which make up Handel’s remarkable sequence for his descent into madness at the end of Act Two, went hand in hand with his subtle but responsive gestures on stage to enact the part of the knight. Admirers of the singer will have enjoyed his characteristically cool musical temper here, though I perhaps miss something of a greater Italianate flair and colour, for example as Lawrence Zazzo brought to the role on the last occasion that the opera was fully staged in this country as far as I recall (by Welsh National Opera, on its autumn tour in 2015).

In this comparatively intimate opera, the other four roles were characterised with at least equal astuteness. Anna Dennis soared with crisp, penetrating tone as Angelica, the queen of Cathay with whom Orlando has become smitten, but who prefers Medoro. The nobility with which she carried herself artfully belied the insincerity of Angelica’s words to Orlando, realising effectively one of the canny ironies of Handel’s musical setting. Sophie Rennert took the trouser role of Medoro, sustaining with more relaxed ardour his musical lines as he entertains Angelica’s affections and wards off those of Dorinda’s. In the guise of that shepherdess, Rachel Redmond demonstrated excellent vocal variety in what is scored as a typically coquettish, humble character among more elevated personages, but ultimately evinces the most sympathy for her flirtatiousness and honesty. By turns excitable, playful, and tender, the skipping gigue-like rhythm of her Act One aria ‘O care parolette’ tellingly infected the instrumental prelude to the scene in which that number subsequently appears, where the prelude would probably otherwise be expected to cultivate a more settled mood to set the scene for the transition to the woods. Matthew Brook was the magus Zoroastro, clad in black gown, who counsels Orlando to pursue glory and his proper knightly vocation, rather than be sidetracked by amorous escapades. A couple of slips in execution aside, his performance was solid but sonorously flexible, persuasive but not stern.

He was sat at the back of the stage much of the time in this performance (incorporating a few staged elements) presiding as though an éminence grise, or symbolic of the characters’ superego or inner conscience. A few other gestures by the singers added their own slant upon the opera’s wit, just as Handel’s original subtly adapts the serious element of opera seria to evoke the witty and satirical nature of Ariosto’s poem. When Orlando enters, supposedly with the (silent, rescued) Princess Isabella as evidence of his valorous deeds, Davies gestured to one of the violinists on stage as he passed by; Medoro wrote his name and Angelica’s as a sign of their love on the neck of the theorbo rather than a tree; and in the trio between the latter two and Dorinda as they euphoniously console her unrequited love for Angelica, they haughtily leave Dorinda by herself before the music concludes, with just one of the two oboes symbolically carrying the melody of the number to a lonely conclusion.

Laurence Cummings – also immersed at present with Handel at Glyndebourne with Giulio Cesare – led the Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord in a nimble account of the score. Although it did not feel in any way rushed or hectored, the music breezed vibrantly through the opera’s changing scenes and affects, and crucially without undue pauses between recitatives and arias, so as to sustain lively pace and tension. With the small orchestra Handel calls for (horns used only in one aria, though two violas are substituted with a pair of violas d’amore in another one) there was ample colour and drama in a work whose magical elements would otherwise suggest a manifest need for a full staging. Some lighting effects in the Barbican Hall enhanced the atmosphere.

Curtis Rogers

Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Anonymous adaptation of Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s L’Orlando, after Ludovico Arioso’s Orlando furioso

Orlando – Iestyn Davies; Angelica – Anna Dennis; Medoro – Sophie Rennert; Dorinda – Rachel Redmond; Zoroastro – Matthew Brook

Conductor – Laurence Cummings, Academy of Ancient Music.

Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 30 June 2024

Top Image: Lestyn Davies: Orlando, Rachel Redmond: Dorinda, Anna Dennis: Angelica, Matthew Brook: Zoroastro and Sophie Rennert: Medoro. Photo by Mark Allan.