If, with Edward Dent, you believe it a crime to perform Orlando without staging, then, gentle reader, you would have missed a wonderful concert by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Tanglewood’s Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall, on August 16. This concert performance with blocking and expressive body language from the singers, minimal costuming, and one prop was not a crime. The beauty of Handel’s music shone through, masterfully presented by Nicholas McGegan and musicians.
Handel’s opera springs off from Ariosto’s sixteenth-century Italian epic Orlando furioso, by way of an anonymous libretto adapting Capece’s 1711 L’Orlando. Unlike the earlier texts, Handel’s libretto includes the key role of the magician Zoroastro (bass), who opens the opera and serves as the plot’s animating force. The melodramatic plot, worthy of a soap opera, is noted in the program summary: “Orlando loves Angelica, but Angelica loves Medoro, and he loves her, but Dorinda loves him too.” The confusion hardly matters; the music is lovely and the singers acted well enough to keep the audience from getting totally lost. Only the magical genii and clouds whisking away characters at key moments needed to be inferred.
The concert began with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra upstage and encircling two harpsichords. Most of the musicians had their backs to the audience; behind the harpsichords were the concertmistress and continuo cellist. Despite the unaccustomed view of musician’s backs, the acoustics were excellent — continuo cello behind harpsichord and facing the house projected wonderfully, and the theorbo player, who sat to one side of the ensemble, faced the house to carry the instrument’s sound. The arrangement allowed for a tight, cohesive ensemble. McGegan, in the middle of the players, conducted from one keyboard, at times turning around to cue bass or theorbo behind him. Downstage were paired piano benches flanking the stage and serving as décor, leaving plenty of space for the singers to enter and exit, sing and swoon, stalk and storm. Since this opera has no chorus, the space was ample for the five singers in the series of accompagnati, arie, recitativi, with terzetto and duetto, that comprise Handel’s Orlando.
Costumes were minimal. Zoroastro, bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich, embodying the role of magician, appeared in dark trousers, shirt, and long black tunic coat. Orlando, countertenor Clint van der Linde, sported dark trousers and a full and gathered white shirt, fully buttoned (including two on the collar); the shirt read more as garb of a Romantic hero of Byronic vintage than Carolingian or Medieval knight (there is no sword), calling attention to the romantic plot of Handel’s opera, the musical innovations, and the inherent anachronism in this, as in so many, operas. Orlando’s shirt became untucked and unbuttoned when he was angry, so retrospectively we can read his first appearance as a stuffed shirt, personified. Angelica, Queen of Cathay, was soprano Dominique Labelle, who sang befitting this ultimate yet elusive regal object of desire; she was wrapped in an amethyst robe complemented by coruscating gems (a fortune in crystal masquerading as an even larger fortune in precious stones). Medoro, mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, as the African prince, wore black trousers and a patterned royal blue and black tunic coat; she carried the one prop in this production – in her black sash was a scabbard with a knife, an implement for carving lovers’ names in a tree (one of Ozawa Hall’s beautiful wooden newel posts) in Act II. Soprano Yulia Van Doren appeared as Dorinda, clothed as a 1950s housewife in dress and apron, bearing an oversized, floppy-brimmed straw hat. (Was this shepherdess a flashback to Berkshires of yore?) The costume worked well for this role, as Dorinda ranged from domestic to smoldering, simpering to sagacious: imminently adaptable. No costume changes; the singers carried the plot through posture, gesture, and inflection.
Handel’s score is remarkable for depicting the psychological states of the characters. Despite the magical trappings, character and emotion are the centerpieces of this work. Anthony Hicks, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (included in Grove Music Online), summarizes Orlando as “a splendid exemplar of what the Baroque theatre could achieve in allying stage-craft to drama expressed through music.” With this assessment of Hicks I concur. This production expressed the pathos and whirlwind of love – bittersweet, mad, regretful, irrational, and remorseful.
Mr. van der Linde sang Orlando with a delightful clarity of voice. From his opening “Stimuato dalla gloria, agitato dall’amore” (Stirred by glory, agitated by love) I looked forward to hearing more. He used his impressive vocal resonance to sing Orlando’s pompous conceit, yet also his emotional conflict. His Act II accompagnato “Ah! Stigie larve” includes the lines “Sono lo spirto mio da me diviso, / Sono um ombra” (I am a spirit divided from myself, / I am a shade), here sung with a perfectly matched and chilling hollowness. The tender arioso, a love duet, of Medoro and Angelica, “Ritornava al suo bel viso” (Returning to his beautiful face) showcased perfectly blended harmonics and book-matched voices. Moore and Labelle, who sang as though truly, madly, deeply in love for a long time, effectively captured the depth of Handel’s music. In Medoro’s aria, “Verdi allori” later in Act II, Moore sang with limpid grace. Labelle endowed Angelica with deep conflict and regret in her aria, “Non potrà, non potrà dirmi ingrata” (He will not, he will not call me ungrateful) giving humanity to an Arioso who is elsewhere distant and imperious (if not also impervious). The terzetto ending Act I between Medoro, Angelica, and Dorinda, “Consolati” (Console yourself) is a study in vocal arabesques blending and separating as words and music dictate. Dorinda’s Act III aria, “Amore è qual vento” (Love is such a whirlwind) gave Van Doren the chance to sing philosophical depth and seriousness. In Hicks’ assessment, “The shepherdess [Dorinda] herself never becomes the comic role that her status might have suggested, despite the quirky rhythms of her arias.” Van Doren put the lie to this judgment with her playful and comedic stage presence and acting and her supple, expressive voice. She reminds me of Natalie Dessay – a different soprano voice, true, but another performer who artfully combines singing and acting to wonderful effect on the operatic stage. Truly this is the trickiest rôle in Orlando, encompassing a wide emotional range including ignorance, irony, and resignation – yet Yulia Van Doren made it all seem terribly easy. While the other singers blended their voices with one another and the orchestra, Mr. Friedrich’s stood out. It marked his character as different from the others, and basso profundo is fitting for an operatic magus. This is my first hearing of Wolf Matthias Friedrich, so I do not know if his voice is as profundo as he wants to sing this role. However, I found his articulation difficult to follow; I did not hear the opening “Gieroglifici eterni” as Italian, an issue throughout the performance.
The orchestra offered sensitive readings with organic and unified swells and decrescendi perfectly balanced to the singers and the mood. The continuo (McGegan on harpsichord, Phoebe Carrai on cello) captured and matched the singers’ phrasing and inflection. The curious musical intervals and marked chromaticisms accompanying Orlando’s descent into madness and visions of Hades were executed with aplomb. During Orlando’s Act III aria, “Già l’ebro mio ciglio quel dolce liquore invita a posar” (Already sleep comes upon me, drugged by this sweet liquid) —Elizabeth Blumenstock and Anthony Martin performing solos on violas d’amore, and Kristin Zoernig on pizzicato bass — offered a haunting collaboration to van der Linde’s vocal line.
McGegan conducted with animation and ease, a strong rapport between the entire orchestra (even as they double on instruments – Hanneke van Proosdij and Gonzalo Ruiz shifting from harpsichord and oboe, respectively, to alto recorder a couple of times during the opera). Clearly McGegan’s twenty-five years conducting Philharmonia Baroque have created an enviable connection among musicians, allowing them to achieve such coherent and masterful performances. Everyone on stage seemed engaged, excited, and delighted to be present and performing. This entire production made Handel’s Orlando seem terribly easy to perform, even as we all know it is not. This exciting and lively production is a testament to the caliber of artistry of Nicholas McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.