The English Concert, Harry Bicket
The Barbican. 1 March 2016
In the past I have been rather frustrated by The Barbican’s habit of promoting concert performances of operas, largely because I have known that most of them had been fully, and often very sumptuously, staged on the continent. But I gradually grew to appreciate the ability to concentrate on the music without the distraction of staging, scenery and sometimes weird directorial instructions to the singers. And, to be fair to The Barbican, there have been some staged operas in recent years from the likes of William Christie. The English Concert started a series of concert performances of Handel operas last year, and continued with their production of Orlando. Judging by this outstanding performance of Orlando, they really have got the practice of concert performances down to a fine art.
Rather than all sitting in a row, oratorio fashion, the five singers sat at far side of the wide Barbican stage, stepping forward to two central music desks when their turn came to sing. But, critically, there were also two other chairs, closer in, where singers who were being sung to, or about, or within earshot, sat while their colleague sang. It was an excellent solution to the often witnessed practice of a singer wandering off while being sung to. In practice few of the singers made much use of the music desks, often singing from memory, and moving to a limited extent to physically accent the mood. And what moods there were!
Orlando is one of Handel’s more unusual operas. It grew out of one of Handel’s rather frequent tricky periods. With the demise of the Royal Academy in 1728, Handel hired the King’s Theatre and set off to find some continental singers, including the spectacular castrato, Senesino. Orlando was written to showcase Senesino’s talents and those of another new singer, Anna Strado del Po. Although it was well received, it only lasted for five performances, and was never revived by Handel. It is noteworthy for the fact that it explores in depth the five characters, avoiding the plot frippery of so many of his operas. Although the story line and the interrelationships is complex, there are no additional subplots to confuse. Instead the focus is on the five protagonists, each representing a different aspect of human life and lives.
To that end, Handel eschews his usual operatic conventions, coming up with a structure that sheds convention and points the way to future developments in opera. Moving away from the predictable da capo aria, he weaves his musical threads through a wide variety of formats, with much use of the accompanied arioso; most notably in Orlando’s famous ‘mad scene’ that concludes Act 2, with its combination of accompanied recitative, arioso, aria, a jaunty gavotte, and a chromatic ground bass; with multiple tempos and time signatures (including a passage in 5/8). He also uses some inventive instrumentation, including the use of two violette marines in Orlando’s gorgeous Già l’ebro mia ciglio. This instrument was similar to the viola d’amore with sympathetic strings and an evocative sound. It was invented by two brothers, who played them themselves in Handel’s orchestra but was unfortunately replaced by two standard violas on this occasion – nonetheless, a rare moment when two viola players can get solo spots.
The singers were inspired, each in their own way. Iestyn Davies must be rated as the current leading countertenor in the world, each successive performance revealing new depths to his musical abilities. He was superb as Orlando, expressing the complex character with impressive sensitivity and with a glorious voice, playing down the ‘I’m a hero’ aspect of the personality but emphasising the human qualities. Kyle Ketelsen was an imposing bass-voiced Zoroastro, acting as a sort of ringmaster and commentator to the goings on. Erin Morley and Sasha Cooke sang Angelica and Medora beautifully, but Carolyn Sampson’s Dorinda was the stand-out female role, not only for
the excellence of her singing and personification of the naïve shepherdess, but also because Handel, almost unwittingly, place Dorinda at the heart of the whole opera. Indeed, the whole thing takes place in and around her bucolic cottage, including one of the plot oddities at the end when everybody is invited back to said cottage, despite the fact that Orlando has just destroyed it in one of his fits of temper. Dorinda also gets one of the most famous arias from Orlando, her Amor è qual vento with its lovely twisting melodic line. All singers impressed with their use of ornaments and da capo elaborations,
Harry Bicket’s direction and harpsichord continuo was spot on, his control of tempo and sensitivity to the singers superb. My own quibble was that he allowed the audience far too much time for applause, breaking the flow of the music, and extending the already lengthy evening. This is partly the fault of Handel’s music which can appear to be a succession of exit arias – but is also controllable by the conductor. Also excellent were the continuo cellist and the theorbo player, Joseph Crouch and William Carter.
An outstanding evening of gripping music and extraordinary singing and playing.