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Comparing our own taste to that of Handel’s London, a programme essay for this Royal Opera revival says “it is hard to pretend that, for modern purposes, Orlando is some kind of Shakespearean masterpiece” – the implication being that it is little more than a string of virtuoso arias. But the point about Orlando, surely, is that Handel intended neither, and the productions that trust him – of which this is not one – vindicate his creative intuition. He was attracted to Ariosto’s Orlando furioso precisely because its characters are complex, self-exploring individuals, stranded in a strange world of fantasy, and it’s in that fantastical context that their singing becomes not just plausible but enchanted. In Orlando’s climactic Act 2 aria, even madness finds a voice.
A new cast and conductor largely bear out this argument, saving a four-hour show from the feelings of disenchantment it aroused when new in 2003. Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment set the tone in their stylistically flawless reading, alert to the dramatic nuances of each aria. On stage the performance is rightly dominated by Bejun Mehta’s charismatic Orlando, bounding over every vocal hurdle in a triumph of expressive virtuosity. He meets his match in Camilla Tilling’s classy Dorinda – this singer can do no wrong in my book – while Rosemary Joshua contributes a sweetly sung Angelica. Anna Bonitatibus, in an auspicious London debut, turns the trouser role of Medoro into one of Handel’s plaintive contralto parts, and Kyle Ketelsen, another natural stage animal, lends welcome substance to Zoroastro.
Francisco Negrin’s staging, decked out in Anthony Baker’s flimsy reproduction set and sub-Gainsborough costumes, remains a mess. A team of three dancers, constantly upstaging the singers, is no substitute for genuine theatre magic and thought-provoking ideas. Shakespearean or otherwise, Orlando may not be Handel’s masterpiece, but it deserves weightier treatment than this. In the circumstances, let’s be thankful for all those arias.
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