George Frideric Handel was both simultaneously a working composer and a composer who worked. Landing in England in the early 1700s, Handel quickly seized his chance to dominate the London musical stage as both a creator and producer of Italian opera, then newly arrived and extravagantly popular. Encouraged by a string of early critical and box office successes, the canny impresario with the deft artistic touch formed his own company. In 1729, his New Royal Academy of Music leased a theatre on the Haymarket for use as an ersatz opera house. Trouble soon loomed across the street. Three years later, a rival company, the Theatre of the Nobility, a socially well-connected start-up with uncomfortably deep pockets, opened for business. Handel needed a hit to trump his competition. The fabled Siennese castrato, Senesino, was hired almost before the celebrated maestro had completed work on a new opera that would showcase his legendary star’s fabled alto. The piece was entitled, Orlando in keeping with its source, Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando furioso. In Handel’s re-interpretation, the original rambling sixteenth century classic was distilled into a taut three act, five character psychological thriller, just the ticket for attracting the opera-going public’s attention.
With its dynamic, highly-charged presentation of Handel’s baroque opera noir, Voicebox: Opera in Concert wins over an equally spellbound winter 2013 audience with a performance of superb musicality and intense expression. Setting and action, although only implied by dramatic advisor Guillermo Silva-Marin’s pared-down staging, still clearly emerges between the notes.
The warrior knight Orlando has shunned the path of Glory, dedicating himself instead to the service of Love despite the disapproval of his counsellor, the mighty magician Zoroastro. The beautiful Queen Angelica rejects his suit. She loves a handsome prince, Medoro, who loves her in return. Prince and Queen profess their devotion much to the dismay of a heartbroken shepherdess, Dorinda. She, too, adores Medoro but, alas, her passion is unrequited. Orlando’s jealousy turns to rage when Dorinda informs him that Medoro and Angelica are betrothed. His fury explodes into a fit of madness. The wrath of hell is unleashed as Orlando quests for revenge. Observing all from a secret hiding place, the great and powerful Zoroastro decides that Love has had enough of the once noble knight. Orlando’s madness is dispelled with the aid of a charmed elixir. Reconciliation and understanding reign. Peace and harmony are restored. All celebrate Medoro and Angelica’s impending union.
The use of magic to influence story, typically a wildly flamboyant tale rooted in myth or legend, was an accepted device in early opera. But Orlando is no mere empty archaic shell with a bland musical filling. Handel’s use of a repeated pulsing passage to underscore his hero’s mental disintegration reverberates with a distinctly modern-sounding sensibility. Orlando’s behaviour borders on the psychopathic, a disturbing quality well conveyed in this Voicebox presentation of a far too infrequently performed period work.
The range of musical colours on display here is brilliantly portrayed by all five artists in the cast — two counter-tenors, two sopranos and a bass. Opera seria is often a challenge for singers. Performance is ruled by firm eighteenth century operatic conventions. The pattern of recitative followed by aria da capo in A-A-B-A stanza form, the final verse ideally delivered with much coloratura, can be restrictive for less practiced performers. The collective musical skillset on show in this Orlando is nothing short of exemplary.
As the opera’s troubled namesake, counter-tenor David Trudgen gives a virtuoso performance. His singing is consistently expansive and heartfelt, his vocal decoration daring and inventive in moments of Baroque-sanctioned improvisation. When Handel wrote the Orlando role for Senesino, the go-to Italian opera hero of his day, he awarded a scant three da capo arias to his superstar, hoping perhaps to rein in the illustrious divo’s notorious tendency to over-embellish. Mr Trudgen, with his meticulous sense of proportion and transparent technique, would undoubtedly have appealed to George Frideric. More than one commentator has likened this emerging Canadian talent to a young David Daniels. It is an apt comparison. Trudgen’s ethereal sound and his ability to convey a sharp, pointed characterization make him a compelling presence on stage. His mad scene is harrowing.
Second counter-tenor Scott Belluz has a distinctly higher pitch to his instrument but a no less masterful command of the Handel idiom. With his clear, vibrant sound Belluz gives us an appealing Medoro, the ideal companion to soprano Virgina Hatfield’s lovely, warm Angelica. The extraordinary Act I terzetto Consolati o bella, gentil pastorella (“Console yourself, dear gentle shepherdess”), an atypical Handelian trio with its mix of tight Prince/Queen harmony counterpointed by Dorinda’s detached refrain, is quite simply exquisite. Belluz and Hatfield sing very beautifully together. And apart. A frequent performer with the Canadian Opera Company, Hatfield’s well-disciplined voice projects both strength and lyricism. Her independent, yet touching Angelica reflects its versatile range.
Co-soprano Meredith Hall appearing as Dorinda and bass baritone Geoffrey Sirett as Zoroastro complete the cast. The part of soubrette is never an easy one in opera. Comedy, stand-up, slapstick or sung, is built on perfect timing. Miss Hall has it. But Orlando demands far more from its simple rustic than the ability to deliver laughs. Handel invests his broken-hearted Dorinda with genuinely affecting expressions of profound sadness. Again, Hall’s singing enchants with its touching shades of helplessness and loss. Zoroastro, on the other hand, is Orlando’s resident heavyweight. Part puppet master, part deus ex machina, the role demands a commanding vocal presence with deep dramatic undertones. Mr Sirett has it covered. His is a big, full-bodied voice but one capable of surprising finesse. Bass baritones do not typically sing Baroque trills. Sirett does.
The Aradia Ensemble, condensed to eighteen gifted musicians, provides splendid accompaniment. Nimbly led by conductor Kevin Mallon, the compact chamber orchestra performing on period instruments meticulously traces the fluid pattern of Handel’s multi-textured score with great feeling and insight. Continuo passages played by harpsichord and cello are particularly well formed as are the opera’s several accompanied recitatives, an experimental technique for Handel during this mid-period in his career.
Orlando played to enthusiastic audiences on ten consecutive occasions when it first opened in London in January 1733. The piece was not revived in Handel’s lifetime. With its thrilling concert presentation, Opera in Concert joins a distinguished roster of producers determined to preserve one of Handel’s most absorbing works. The music is exceptional, its performance memorable. Two hundred years have done nothing to dim Orlando’s brilliance. Voicebox keeps this dazzling Baroque masterpiece shining.