Orlando, Independent Opera at Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London

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The old Handel Opera annual series at Sadler’s Wells, which enlisted even the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland, have been greatly missed. In England, at least, Handel’s many operas have been ignored by the Covent Garden and English National Opera repertoires – yet they are regularly performed at most other opera houses in the west, as they deserve to be.

The “opera seria” conventions may seem stiff and formal now, but a clever modern producer can find ways to respect them while making a properly live show. After all, Handel and his theatrical colleagues learnt how to please London audiences without descending to pantomime or revue. The young Independent Opera’s Orlando has had a halfway-decent shot at doing as much. Devout Handelians may appreciate it, but the Independent Opera is too young to do Orlando well.

As the fraught hero, torn between warlike duties – vaguely Crusade-ish – and romance, William Towers is insufficiently anxious to suggest any personal crisis, and his singing is not stylish enough to limn his dilemma: phrasing is too soft-edged to cut a swath.

As the lusty Moorish soldier Medoro, Christopher Ainslie strikes a more vivid figure, and sings him with robust, dark-voiced intelligence. Nicholas Warden looms up nicely as the bass “magus” Zoroastro, bearded like Bluto in the old Popeye cartoons, and in the soubrette role of lovelorn Dorinda we have a charming, bubbly performance from Joana Seara. (Think Mozart’s Despina in Così fan tutte.)

The happiest discovery was the soprano Rebecca Ryan’s sparkling Angelica, supposedly Orlando’s inamorata but much more attracted by Medoro. Miss Ryan makes a delightful soubrette – and with depths beautifully displayed in the range and variety of her arias here. Everybody should want her as a Susanna for Figaro, or a Despina for Così, or a Zerlina for Don Giovanni: her intelligence, wit and charm would surely triumph.

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