For all the performances of, recordings of and writings on Vivaldi’s operas (he claimed to have composed 94), few of them hold a place in the popular repertory. And perhaps Orlando Furioso, performed on Sunday in the typical 1727 revision, has only itself to blame. Music aside, the plot is composed of so many entwining threads as to be near impenetrable on first listen, even in this simple concert staging.
But it is, I feel, worth persevering, for the work contains much exquisite melody and orchestration. Ruggiero’s aria in Act One, Sol da te, must be one of the most beautiful things in all of Baroque opera, with its shy yet virtuosic flute obbligato (wonderfully shaped here) playfully dueting with the singer, underpinned by a hushed double bass heartbeat. The drama’s peak arrives as Orlando descends into madness. The recitatives, contrasting accompagnato and secco styles, breaking into and quickly retracting from impetuous arioso passages, powerfully evoke the character’s turmoil.
Sonia Prina sang Orlando’s virtuosic arias thrillingly, nailing every decoration of Nel profondo with her harsh, fiery contralto tone (reminiscent of Marilyn Horne in the role) and a bestial, intensely physical style of delivery. As madness crept in, Prina’s portamentos shuddered, her pitching deliberately splayed and her delivery became ever more grotesque and caricatured.
Jennifer Larmore, as the sexy sorceress Alcina, was eloquent but not quite at the top of her game. Alto Philippe Jaroussky was stunning in Ruggiero’s Act One aria, though his pure, teasingly feminine sound was less suited to the swinging melodic line of Che bel morirti in sen or to the brisk coloratura of Come l’onda. Christian Senn filled the role of Astolfo admirably with his full, easily produced bass-baritone. Veronica Cangemi‘s head voice was limpid and splendidly ethereal, and her Angelica warmed as the evening progressed.
Jean-Christophe Spinosi‘s conducting grabbed you by the throat and never let go. He drove the performance on, striving for great contrasts of dynamics and tempi, stretching the continuo in Orlando’s crazed recitatives to breaking point, pushing and pulling. It was often thrilling, but so driven an approach took its toll on the string intonation, and I confess to being highly distracted by Spinosi’s gesturing and contorting (he’d be a good dancer, noted the couple sat next to me). There was a sense of overcompensation – in making a case for Orlando Furioso as a valid drama, Spinosi overdid the perspiration, overdid the fireworks and, at times, forgot to allow the music time to breathe.