The most striking feature of this production of Handel’s Orlando is the superb – arguably definitive – musical performance. If anybody wants to know how to perform Handel with authenticity as well as with astonishing beauty and virtuosity, a visit to this production is a must.
Charles Mackerras, in his 82nd year more energetic than many conductors half his age, is a master of well chosen tempi. Sadly, Handel’s music is often ruined by standard fast speeds but here we have a true variety of fast and slow, tender and heroic, sad and humorous sections. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment responds magnificently to Sir Charles’ directions throughout, whether producing lustrous sounds or magical pianissimos. Particular mention must be made of cellist Jonathan Cohen‘s exemplary continuo playing.
Bejun Mehta‘s Orlando is breathtaking. His unusually strong countertenor voice is just as strong at the bottom end of his large vocal range as on the top. Singing twelve arias within a performance is no mean feat, especially when the composer heaps on passages demanding extreme virtuosity. Yet Mehta (a distant relation to conductor Zubin Mehta) stayed the course throughout, delivering a daring portrayal of Orlando’s descent into madness. Of the other four singers, all of high quality, Kyle Ketelsen (Zoroastro) particularly impressed with his rich and even bass. Camilla Tilling‘s portrayal of the kind but frustrated Dorinda is an utter delight.
The improvised variations in the da capo sections of arias were very well thought out, no doubt under Sir Charles Mackerras’ direction, and are spectacularly delivered by all five singers. They are helped by the imaginative stage direction of Francisco Negrin who has clearly absorbed the musical idiom of the da capo arias with their repeated first sections. Indeed, he has assigned variations of movements and expressions to the variations in the da capo sections. However, occasionally Negrin’s stage directions conflict with the music. For instance, during her slow and sad aria (If I walk through the meadow), Dorinda is required to colour the drawing of a heart with very fast movements. Admittedly it is funny when she holds up the drawing for the audience to see but the stage action at that point clashes with the slow music.
Apart from the beginning and the end of the production, a revolving set keeps moving around between various scenes. The movements of the revolve seem to fit in with the flow of the music but there are some oddities. The stuffed sheep in shepherdess Dorinda’s first scene might have been intended as a charming addition but I find it off-putting. It is not clear why in the meadow scene of the second act we have large lances (instead of trees or bushes) representing nature. Is this a reference to the heroic which is in conflict with the pastoral? But otherwise, I very much enjoyed the largely imaginative production.
This run of Orlando performances is a must for everybody who wants to experience a Handel opera in the best possible musical presentation. Don’t miss it.