Even compressed to a relatively manageable 2 1/2 hours, and in the most sympathetic interpretive hands, Handel’s “Orlando,” like much of its opera seria ilk, challenges both the physical and mental Sitzfleisch .
Still, conductor Christopher Hogwood, his responsive Academy of Ancient Music orchestra and five paragons of Baroque vocal style did provide a fair share of pleasures and thrills with their semistaged presentation Wednesday at the Ambassador Auditorium.
“Orlando,” to Carlo Capeci’s libretto, is about the testing of fidelity and--surprise!--the advisability of temperance over heedless passion. The drama, with certain parallels to Mozart’s later “Zauberflote,” enlists a Sarastro-like magician--named in fact, Zoroastro--to lead his charges toward the light of reason, a heady task in particular with the opera’s titular countertenor hero, who has a habit of lapsing into jealousy-inspired, hallucinatory madness.
Without going too deeply into a multiplicity of plot sillinesses--Handel’s music mitigates many of them--it should be noted that there are also a warbling soprano shepherdess, Dorinda, and a pair of (secretly) wedded lovers, Angelica (soprano) and Medoro (mezzo), all of whom are kept floridly busy throughout the evening.
The singing was, in a word, superb. David Thomas, that most gleefully accomplished of Baroque bassos, had us in thrall from his opening invocation to the heavens. Lynne Dawson (Angelica) and Catherine Robbin (Medoro) exhibited ravishingly clean, strong, womanly voices capable of spinning out endless filigree. Emma Kirkby, who revives the near-vanished art of simpering with a few deft gestures, sang Dorinda with her accustomed, fluting purity of tone. And James Bowman proved that the male alto can, in both voice and bearing, cut a manly figure--although he does surrender some agility in the process and sacrifices excitement at the cadences by lacking a trill.
Hogwood’s leadership was at once lively, stylish and accommodating of his singers: Age of Reason conducting, so to speak, at its most appealingly unobtrusive and an instructive contrast to the more tautly inflected style of period-performance competitor John Eliot Gardiner.