Any performance of Orlando Paladino is a bit like an archaeological dig: it offers clues to Haydn’s personality and late-18th-century lifestyle, while leaving a lot to our imagination. It tells us, for example, what artists he had at his disposal at Esterháza, the aristocratic Elysium where he spent the most productive years of his life – a coloratura soprano with a formidable personality (the sorceress Alcina), a dramatic soprano with a brilliant top (the lovelorn heroine Angelica), a soubrette and baritone who were good at comedy (Erilla and Pasquale). And, of course, a virtuoso orchestra: the score is by turns urbane, witty, ironic, heroic, poignant. One of many operas inspired by Ariosto’s medieval fable about a love- and battle-crazed knight, it was calculated to entertain: here were eight characters wandering the stage as if stumbling through the fog of life.
Why, then, given all the available resources of the day, did Haydn fail to impress posterity as he did his contemporaries? That was the question lurking behind this superb performance by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under René Jacobs. Although billed as a concert, it came across as a fully fledged staging, with singers who clearly knew the piece inside-out and “acted” their parts with the same freedom and easy repartee that Haydn’s ensemble must have done.
The recitatives crackled with life. The comedy was subtle. Arias were seamlessly integrated into the musical flow. It came as no surprise, then, to discover that Jacobs’s ensemble – headed by Sine Bundgaard, Stéphane Degout, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Sunhae Im and Victor Torres – had come hotfoot from staged performances at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival.
Together, they convinced us that Orlando Paladino is worth performing. But the question remains: why does this opera, like Haydn’s other dramatic works, lack the popular touch? Maybe he was too much the Kapellmeister, secure of tenure and civilised of temper. What Jacobs and his fine-tuned ensemble could not hide is that there are no heart-stopping moments in Orlando Paladino where we feel we are reaching Haydn’s, and our own, emotional depths.
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