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Fond illusions

Covent Garden
10/06/2003 -  and 10, 13, 16, 20, 23 October
George Frideric Handel: Orlando

Alice Coote (Orlando), Barbara Bonney (Angelica), Bejun Mehta (Medoro), Camilla Tilling (Dorinda)
Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Harry Bicket (conductor), Francesco Negrin (director)

Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment

Handel's Orlando was the last of his Royal Academy operas, and the first of his three operas based on Ariosto's Orlando furioso. Orlando looks back to Handel's first London operas in its magical stage machinery and code of chivalry, while its music feels like a natural cumulation of the great history operas -- most familiarly, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda -- where the conflict of the personal and the political, or love and war, drags exquisite sentiments from the characters. But the surreal pastoral-elegiac setting, faithful to Ariosto in spirit if not to the letter, and the grand themes of love, desire and illusion look forward to the great Covent Garden operas Ariodante and Alcina, without quite perhaps achieving the integration and dramatic inevitability of those works.

Indeed, the libretto of Orlando is one of the most literary that Handel set, in some ways comparable in its texture to the later oratorios. Orlando's madness is presented as a the result of an unresolved conflict within him between love and military duty, or Venus and Mars, which the magician Zoroastro allows to work out in a pastoral laboratory to enable Orlando to fulfil his destiny as a hero. The action is a minimalist school for lovers in which the chilly princess Angelica is made human by her love for the gentle Saracen Medoro. Orlando is in love with Angelica; his counterbalance is the shepherdess Dorinda, in love with Medoro but able to let him go, with sadness but with eventual resolve, and always charming and generous.

Franceso Negrin's production follows these themes clearly and elegantly. Zoroastro's initial appeal to Orlando to let Mars triumph over Venus is accompanied by two dancers representing the gods, in plausible baroque style, and a third representing Cupid. Cupid watches from the wings throughout from the opposite side of the stage to Zoroastro, and intervenes in the action with his arrows when mentioned, until he is finally routed when the down-to-earth Dorinda pokes his last arrow in his balls. Venus and Mars appear when love'n'war is mentioned, and are plausibly revealed as the agents of Zoroastro, explanatory projections of the forces within Orlando. The main set is similarly economical, four rooms on a turntable that allow for pursuit as well as swift scene changes. The costumes are eighteenth-century day dress, more or less, with Angelica as a Watteau shepherdess on her first appearance, and the general decor is subdued Poussin.

The production does little to offend (only Angelica and Medoro's frantic coupling as they flee from Orlando really transgresses the conventional decorum, and it fits the topic of their arias at that point), but it inevitably doesn't reward modern expectations of about madness, because the opera doesn't. Handel's Orlando -- pre-Romantic and pre-clinical -- is related musically to Purcell's phantasmagoric, melancholy mad women rather than to Lucia di Lammermoor: the great mad-scene that ends act two famously breaks all the rules of form, with Charon's bark rocking in five beat bars and the erratic changes of mood and measure, but it doesn't offer the singer a chance to get demented in the modern opera-lover's sense -- there are no bravura runs or stratospheric climaxes, only depressive a visions of mythological and experiential hell. The other, more tractable, emotions in the opera are likewise delivered within the conventions of the time, and perhaps without the opportunities for expressive intensity of the Covent Garden operas -- compare both situation and the music of "Verde allore", Medoro's farewell to his pastoral retreat, with "Verdi prati", Ruggiero's farewell not only to the beautiful countryside of Alcina's isle, but also to illusion, free ranging desire and unconstrained self expression. Negrin commendably maintains the pastoral coolness of the work, and leaves it to the performers to create the drama.

The cast is superbly chosen, and nearly flawless. Barbara Bonney was a suitably chilly, maybe not quite sufficiently incisive, Angelica at the start, and she warmed into humanity very effectively, always keeping a regal composure. Camilla Tilling was delightful as the mentally healthy Dorinda, sweet of voice and making up for any lack of vocal character with a spunky, comically sympathetic performance. Jonathan Lemalu looked far too young and jolly for a sage, but he sounded glorious and authoritative (though definitely still a Leporello), while Bejun Mehta was flawless and gently intense as Medoro.

Mehta has also sung Orlando, and is one of the few counter-tenors with the tessitura for it. Questions have been asked about why a mezzo was cast in this production, but Alice Coote's performance set out to defy gender and vocal categories, and pretty much succeeded. Her study of male deportment has been the topic of many articles and interviews, but on the night her Orlando was a tour de force of impersonation only with hindsight. She brought a puzzling but always fascinating theatrical presence that suited the melancholy Orlando better than the swaggering hero of the first few minutes, and a stunning range of vocal colour and intensity. Coote has often been compared to Juliet Stevenson for her emotional honesty and allure (and indeed, she looks a bit like her), but tonight a better comparison might have been Simon Keenlyside, for her sheer physical theatricality, and Anne Murray, for her vocal drama. Her performance might not have been authentic for Handel, but she delivered the work completely and was irresistable to watch.

Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, making their first appearance at Covent Garden, combined period vigour with great dramatic sense. Bicket somehow managed to scale up the sound for the house without losing the singers, and made the most of the many evocative moments for the orchestra. When Orlando fell asleep under the influence of Zoroastro's healing drug, it was truly enchanting.

HE Elsom



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