mon 15/07/2024

Orlando, Academy of Ancient Music, Cummings, Barbican review - madly beautiful | reviews, news & interviews

Orlando, Academy of Ancient Music, Cummings, Barbican review - madly beautiful

Orlando, Academy of Ancient Music, Cummings, Barbican review - madly beautiful

Concert format finds the humanity in Handel's magic pantomime

Crazy for you: Iestyn Davies as Orlando, with Rachel RedmondAll images Mark Allan/ Barbican

The Academy of Ancient Music, which celebrates its “golden anniversary” this season, got going just as Handel’s operas began to leave the library at last and reclaim the stage. There they continue to flourish, dazzle and move – which makes any concert performance of them a slightly bittersweet pleasure.

At the Barbican, the AAM’s Orlando boasted sumptuous luxury casting, headed by countertenor Iestyn Davies as the love-maddened warrior, and adorned by four other hugely gifted singers along with the savoury period sounds produced by director-harpsichordist Laurence Cummings and his crew. 

Yet this feast of gorgeous music forever gestured towards the drama that its limited format – despite some attempts at action and business among the singers – could never deliver. So frustration tempered ecstasy. Which is, after all, much what these lovelorn characters themselves endure. Military hero Orlando (the final role Handel wrote, in 1732, for the superstar castrato Senesino) loves princess Angelica, who loves (and is loved by) the foreign prince Medoro (Sophie Rennert, pictured above with Anna Dennis), himself adored by the long-suffering shepherdess Dorinda. Who gets her cottage torched for all her hospitable pains, while lovesick Orlando totally loses it in Handel’s gold-medal mad scene – 5/8 time signatures and all. 

Sententious wizard Zoroastro laments frail humankind’s propensity to run off the rails for desire but does precious little about it all until his final fix. All of which unfolds against a backdrop of pantomime mythology – crags, woods, palms, storms, palaces – summoned at the Barbican purely by surtitles and the odd passage of dimmed lights. 

So Handel’s inexhaustibly expressive music, and a narrow range of gesture and movement, had to bear the entire dramatic load. Except for the occasional bit of humorous byplay, as when Orlando reads his rival’s amorous graffiti not on a tree but the trunk of William Carter’s theorbo (pictured below). The effect was to simplify the mixed emotional register of the opera, flatten some of its melodramatic or comic elements, and deliver something closer to an 18th-century novel of feeling – by Samuel Richardson, say – enriched with music of genius on every page. Davies’s sombre, nuanced and assured countertenor set the tone for this chamber-style ambience – not helped, however, by the time required for entrances and exits across the wide Barbican stage. We lost spectacle and burlesque; we gained intimacy and humanity. Thanks to the sheer vocal quality across the cast, that proved just about enough. 

Davies coloured Orlando’s descent into derangement in dark, menacing tones, with little in the way of scenery-chewing frenzy but instead the warped, icy calm of a stubborn, settled delusion. Superbly sustained legato lines alternated with faultless coloratura somersaults (as in his stupendous “Fammi combattere”), but the warrior’s crazed misery felt inward, cool, rather than histrionic and performative. Even his Act II journey into the spiritual abyss, “Ah Stigie Larve!”, smouldered more than blazed as Davies ran through the mind-blowing range of textures, rhythms and tempi with which Handel captures his hero’s fragmentation. 

Still, after Zoroastro belatedly contrives a recovery, Davies found a ravishing sweetness in “Già l’ebro mio ciglio”, accompanied by the lilting violas d’amore of Bojan Čičić and William Thorp. Throughout, Cummings and the AAM laid down a carpet of well-woven Baroque sound beneath the singers’ feet, punctuated with obbligato instrumental turns to relish, whether from Carter’s theorbo, the oboes of Leo Duarte and Robert de Bree, or the briefly-appearing first-act horns (Ursula Paludan Monberg, David Bentley).

Within this inner-directed, non-heroic framework, plucky, generous but ill-served Dorinda emerges as the genuine heroine of the piece. Rachel Redmond’s soprano had bloom as well as charm, not just the canny, pert plebeian lass of stereotype but a clear-sighted enabler of others’ happiness whose own needs pass unnoticed. Handel, though, knows her value, in the plangent siciliano of “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti” or the rueful grace of “Amor è qual vento”. Redmond’s limpid candour sometimes stole the scenes, but the heaven-favoured duo of requited lovers also enjoyed plenty of lustrous moments.

In the breeches role of Medoro, the noble, polished mezzo of Sophie Rennert maybe lacked some contralto-shaded heft and sheen. But it sustained her set-piece arias – notably a gorgeous “Verdi allori” – with a fine, firm beauty of tone. Anna Dennis’s Angelica (pictured above) had the graceful confidence and unforced virtuosity –especially at the top of her range – of a practised, expert Handelian, suitably sparkling in her coloratura displays but emotionally rounded and credible as well. Arias such as “Verdi painte” and “Così giusto è questa speme” had sturdy roots as well as delicate decorative foliage. As for Matthew Brook’s hands-off magician, this Zoroastro began with a certain tendency towards tetchy growls rather than sonorous serenity, but in due time blossomed into the formidable bass acrobatics of pieces such as “Sorge infausta una procella”.

As with any work rarely heard in its entirety, one of the joys of this Orlando was the chance to experience stand-out showpieces in context – even if we lacked full-dress theatrics. However, ensemble Handel can thrill as much as solos and duets. Nothing in Orlando impressed more than the astoundingly lovely trio that closes the first act, “Consolati, o Bella”, as the smug lovey-dovey couple Medoro and Angelica commiserate with spurned, patronised Dorinda. You might call it “Mozartian”, save that Mozart himself would surely accept agreed that he could scarcely have done better. At moments like this, and with singers so strong, perhaps the music does tell a story truer, and richer, than any stagecraft could ever supply. 

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