More and more houses are getting it right with baroque opera. Concerto Köln’s triumphant unearthing of Leonardo Vinci’s 1730 Artaserse late last year (complete with European tour and CD) proved just how thrilling it can be when you do the music of this era full justice. With the right instruments, the right tempi, the right singers and the right information, a good baroque opera can generate rock-concert excitement. And it should.

So how could Dresden’s Semperoper get it so spectacularly wrong? Last weekend’s premiere of Handel’s Orlando read like object lesson in how not to present a first-rate 1733 opera to a first-night audience.

The Semperoper has cast Orlando entirely with singers from the house ensemble, a decision just as bemusing as that of inviting Jonathan Darlington, in no respect a baroque expert, to conduct.

The degree to which the musical fiasco that ensued can be blamed on Darlington could be debated. The house singers are not bad. They just can’t sing this music. Darlington’s leaden tempi were presumably often the lesser of two evils, since at a more appropriate speed, the singers would have fallen off the rails. That does not excuse the plodding awfulness of the basso continuo – why perform baroque music if you can’t shape a bass line? – or the frequent small disasters from the musicians. Few people are expert on the viola d’amore, but why use the instrument at all if it ends up sounding like a bad high school performance?

Stage director Andreas Kriegenburg appeared almost as much at sea with the material of Orlando as the assembled musical team. Harald Thor has built a single set of an aristocratic living-room some time in the present surrounded by a winter forest. The addition of 10 dancers, clad in underwear and trench coats, and occasionally clothes, serves chiefly to display a lack of faith in the score and a dearth of ideas. It was left to choreographer Zenta Haerter to fill in the conceptual blanks with frenetic action.

Kriegenburg tells the story of Orlando – one of Handel’s first ventures towards a lighter touch in his opera seria – as a tale of war-time trauma. There is some blood, some brutality, and much looking depressed. None of this can save the evening.

Of the cast, Georg Zeppenfeld and Barbara Senator fared best as Zoroastro and Dorinda respectively. Christa Mayer, a fine mezzo, should never have been cast in the title role. It was grim to watch her battle with coloratura to which she is in no way suited, when this part should be sung with joyous virtuosity.

Presumably house management saw the chance to save money by scheduling a work with no choir and just five soloists. If they had other reasons for choosing Orlando, these were not apparent. Handel deserves better.


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