28 April 2010

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – ORLANDO (C. Dumaux, E. de la Merced, R. Nicholls, J.M. Fumas, A. Buet; K617)

Händel's ORLANDO, HWV 31 (Dumaux, de la Merced, Nicholls, Fumas, Buet; Malgoire - K617 221/3) GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31 – C. Dumaux (Orlando), E. de la Merced (Angelica), R. Nicholls (Dorinda), J.M. Fumas (Medoro), A. Buet (Zoroastro); La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy; Jean-Claude Malgoire [recorded ‘live’ at the Théâtre Municipal de Tourcoing, France, on 4 May 2008; K617 221/3]

Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso – first published in complete form in 1532 and at more than 38,000 lines among the longest poetic epics in European Literature – was to composers of the Eighteenth Century what the plays of Shakespeare were to their Nineteenth-Century successors: an irresistible source of heroic stories populated by legendary figures who nonetheless possessed endearingly ordinary qualities.  Inspiring operas from composers ranging from Rameau and Vivaldi to Piccinni and Haydn, Ariosto’s humanistic epic provided plots for three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s most compelling operas for London: Alcina, Ariodante, and Orlando.  The earliest of Händel’s three Orlando Furioso operas, Orlando was premiered at the King’s Theatre (now the home of the long-running West End production of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera) on 27 January 1733.  The cast for the inaugural production, which ran for ten performances, included the world-famous Senesino as Orlando, Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Angelica, Celeste Gismondi as Dorinda, Francesca Bertolli as Medoro (a relatively rare instance in Händel’s London operas of an important male role being created by female contralto), and Antonio Montagnana as Zoroastro.  If not among the handful of Händel’s operas most known to Twenty-First-Century audiences, Orlando was one of the most notable successes of its composer’s London career, a score in which Händel’s skills as both musician and dramatist were tested and proved.

A depiction of Orlando in Ariosto's ORLANDO FURIOSO by French artist Gustave Doré

One of the most remarkable aspects of Ariosto’s literary epic – and, later, of Händel’s opera – is the uncommonly frank depiction of the hero’s [he is, incidentally, the famed Roland, one of Charlemagne’s most capable paladins] madness, which results from his unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica (who, after a fashion that virtually demanded operatic treatment, is in love with Medoro, a Saracen knight).  The sensibilities of Renaissance writers were increasingly engaged by explorations of the intricacies of human psychology, and the madness of Orlando proved for Ariosto an opportunity for examining insanity within the context of an individual psyche rather than that of religious conventions as had been prevalent in earlier literary movements.  This psychological depth, combined with the fantastic staging possibilities offered by a plot containing battles and sorcery, attracted the artistic attentions of the most celebrated composers of the Baroque era.  The madness of Orlando was an unprecedented opportunity for composers to cast off musical formulae and compose ‘pure’ music to depict the wanderings of an afflicted mind.  In Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, the title character’s madness is conveyed by lapses into French (which Vivaldi’s Venetian audiences are sure to have found hysterical in both senses of the term) and wordless variations on the Iberian folksong ‘La Folía,’ a veritable ‘hit’ tune that circulated throughout Europe during the Eighteenth Century in the form of variations by celebrated composers.  Händel brought even greater novelty to his depiction of Orlando’s madness, not by discarding traditional forms piecemeal but by turning them in on themselves in order to achieve the most intense dramatic expression with the most economical of means.  What Händel achieved in Orlando with the portrayal of psychological unraveling with relatively simple musical devices would remain unchallenged in its dramatic effectiveness until the development of the more extravagant mad scenes of Nineteenth-Century Italian bel canto.

Musically, Orlando deserves a place among the most distinguished operatic scores of Händel’s maturity.  Composing his music for a distinguished cast, Händel enriched each role in Orlando with arias and ensembles of beauty and brilliance.  Furthermore, there are no characters of secondary importance in Orlando, which allowed Händel to dedicate himself even more perceptibly than in his other operas for London to minute details of musical and dramatic characterization.  In this sense, Orlando is ultimately one of Händel’s most sensual and emotionally honest operas despite its exalted personages of lore.

The present recording, preserving a performance given on 4 May 2008 in the Théâtre Municipal de Tourcoing in a production by Gildas Bourdet, features the Baroque-specialist ensemble La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy under the direction of their founder, Jean-Claude Malgoire.  A pioneering figure in the Early Music movement since his creation of La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy in 1966, Maestro Malgoire has long inspired arguments among scholars and music lovers with the often idiosyncratic nature of his approach to Baroque operas.  His series of Händel opera recordings (Rinaldo, Serse, and Tamerlano) for CBS/Sony were subject to mixed receptions by critics despite their documentation of the work of several wonderful singers (especially Carolyn Watkinson, Ileana Cotrubas, Paul Esswood, and the young Barbara Hendricks), with much of the harshest criticism aimed at what was described as the astringent sound of the period string playing and bizarrely-inflected phrasing.  Maestro Malgoire’s forces have hardly proved to be alone in occasionally making unpleasant sounds, but in the course of the past three decades the ears of listeners have adjusted (and have heard far worse noises emerging from other period-instrument bands, to be frank).  This recording of Orlando is played with the verve characteristic of Maestro Malgoire’s work at its best, and the tones produced by his players fall pleasantly on the ears, on the whole.  Equally importantly, Maestro Malgoire’s conducting of the score reveals not only an acquaintance with the music but also a recognition of its significance in Händel’s operatic output.  Surely benefiting from having been recorded in performance, secco recitatives never drag or lose momentum, and Maestro Malgoire paces the performance with admirable attention to the cumulative impact of the music, bringing rhythmic vitality to the overtly dramatic scenes and welcome restraint to moments of lyricism.  For all that his work has not been universally appreciated, Maestro Malgoire remains a vital contributor to the Baroque Renaissance, and this performance of Orlando confirms that, in his fifth decade of music-making, his is a credible presence among the most accomplished conductors of Händel’s operas.

a scene from Gildas Bourdet's production of Händel's ORLANDO at the Théâtre Municipal de Tourcoing, 2008

Händel rarely lavished even upon his roles in other operas composed for the great Antonio Montagnana music of the quality that he created for Zoroastro.  Zoroastro in the context of Orlando is a ‘mago’ (magician), but it is clear from the profundity of the music that Händel wrote for the role that he may well have also had in his mind the Persian philosopher Zoroaster, albeit anachronistically (and, from a strictly philosophical perspective, erroneously) as the historical Zoroaster likely lived two millennia before Charlemagne’s reign in the Eighth Century.  A decade after the first performance of Orlando, the Persian Zoroaster would become the subject of an important tragédie lyrique by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and after another forty years the basis – arguably – for the character of Sarastro in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  Allowing for the obvious differences in styles, the music for Händel’s Zoroastro would not be out of place in either Rameau’s opera or Mozart’s in terms of the dignity of utterance.  That dignity is well-served in the performance on this recording by Frenchman Alain Buet, who is variously billed as both a baritone and a bass.  Mr. Buet’s voice is stronger in the baritone range than in the lowest depths of the bass range, but he copes fearlessly with the considerable range demanded by Händel’s music.  Mr. Buet avoids the sluggishness of many larger-voiced singers in this repertory, delivering the rapid passagework with vigor and ease.  Mr. Buet’s Zoroastro is a presence both forceful and benevolent, and his performance ignores no aspect of the role.

Though created by a female singer, Medoro is sung in this performance by the French countertenor Jean-Michel Fumas, a fine singer whose work is too little-known in the United States, even among connoisseurs of Baroque music.  Mr. Fumas has collaborated often with Maestro Malgoire, and the conductor’s understanding of the singer’s needs in Medoro’s often daunting music is obvious.  Medoro is one of those Händel characters whose lot it is to more or less be in the wrong places at the wrong times, the unintentional hypotenuse of a love triangle resulting from the affections of both Angelica (who, though passionately desired by Orlando, remains true to Medoro) and Dorinda.  To audiences in the Twenty-First Century, this predicament introduces a subtle suggestion of comedy (a suggestion that becomes none too subtle in many productions of the opera), but Händel’s music reveals that the composer considered Medoro’s plight deadly serious.  Mr. Fumas, who also sings roles from the haute-contre repertory of his native country, possesses a voice of suitable richness to convincingly portray a male character, a trait surprisingly rare among countertenors.  As Medoro, Mr. Fumas brings admirable concentration to his performance, taking the care to maintain an even tone throughout his role’s most difficult passages.  As a result, the significance of Medoro in the overall drama of the opera is apparent.  Meeting the technical demands of Medoro’s music confidently, Mr. Fumas is free to focus on honing his interpretation of the role, ultimately contributing a performance that is wholly effective in its restraint and subtlety.

Singing the role of the shepherdess Dorinda, whose Arcadian existence is disrupted by the pangs of misbegotten love, the voice of British soprano Rachel Nicholls is one of bewitching purity.  The effect of hearing Ms. Nicholls in any of Dorinda’s pensive arias is like that of seeing the early-morning sunlight pouring through the windows of a great cathedral.  The sophistication inherent in Ms. Nicholls’ singing reveals that Dorinda is a character whose simplicity is that of honesty rather than banality.  Ms. Nicholls’ technique encompasses all of the tools needed to meet the challenges of Dorinda’s more spirited music, as well, and on the whole her performance is one of this recording’s greatest strengths and a superb achievement in recorded Händel singing.

The ‘international’ soprano (born in Australia but resident in Spain since an early age) Elena de la Merced is a recurrent presence among the casts of productions and recordings of Baroque operas.  She makes of Händel’s heroines something of a specialty, the blend of technical brilliance and natural timbral attractiveness in her voice proving ideal for the dueling fire-breathing and heart-breaking elements of Händel’s soprano roles.  Angelica is just such a role, split between extremes of exasperated vehemence and absolute dejection.  The darkness that invades Ms. de la Merced’s voice in moments of pathos does not shut out the light altogether, and as with Ms. Nicholls’ Dorinda there is to Ms. de la Merced’s Angelica a wonderfully refreshing quality of quietude.  Even in their bleakest musical moments, there is in the performances of both sopranos a prevalent sense of truth, of things being sorted out and set right before the final curtain.  As so often in opera, thoughtful artists prove that what seems on the page a manufactured lieto fine is in execution a deeply-considered resolution built gradually, if almost imperceptibly, by the composer.  That no single aria stands out for having received an especially fine performance from either Ms. Nicholls or Ms. de la Merced is indicative of the extremely high standards of singing achieved in this performance – a remarkable achievement indeed in the context of a single live, staged performance.

It is immediately apparent when hearing this recording that French countertenor Christophe Dumaux has an arrestingly beautiful voice, sweet-toned and true throughout his range.  It is more controlled than the voices of many countertenors and also possesses a greater spectrum of colors and dynamic contrasts.  His splendid technique notwithstanding, Mr. Dumaux’s singing in this performance is an exciting display of dramatic bravura, his vocalism always at the service of the text.  Occasionally, this dramatic vividness is at the expense of the beauty of Mr. Dumaux’s tone, but the commitment with which Mr. Dumaux completes every dramatic journey that he begins justifies his choices.  Not surprisingly, the apotheosis of Mr. Dumaux’s performance comes in Orlando’s celebrated mad scene, which Mr. Dumaux shapes delicately, the sorrow and disappointment that disrupt the character’s reason depicted with touching sincerity and musical sensitivity.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Dumaux combines the textual clarity typical of an accomplished verismo singer with his skills as an Händel singer of the first order, contributing an account of Orlando’s music that is cumulatively thrilling and moving.  Those who love Händel’s music owe a particular debt of gratitude to K617, the Convent of Saint Ulrich, and their ‘Chemins du Baroque’ initiative for adding to the Händel discography a recording of an important singer, unique in his Fach, in his prime singing one of the Saxon Master’s most compelling operatic characters.

Despite the presence in the catalogues of several fine recordings, Orlando has not been as fortunate as others among Händel’s operas in receiving the full attention of audiences and music-lovers.  One way in which the present recording might prove indispensible is that it offers evidence of the fact that Orlando is an opera with the capacity, drawn solely from Händel’s score, of proving as engaging, thought-provoking, and moving as Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, or Tamerlano.  The title role is a tour de force for an insightful singer, and the multiple-venue production preserved on this recording was rightly centered on the standard-setting Orlando of Christophe Dumaux.  So much of Jean-Claude Malgoire’s work having been dismissed by critics with charges of inconsistency and idiosyncrasy, the consistent excellence of the performance and unerring validity of Maestro Malgoire’s pacing of the score are rewards of this recording that are perhaps more cherished for having been somewhat unexpected.  Above all, a quintet of very fine singers and a conductor who understands and supports their efforts prove anew that the barrier between Händel’s best operas and the international mainstream repertory is built of nothing more than unfamiliarity.