16 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – ORLANDO (B. Mehta, S. Karthäuser, K. Hammarström, S. Im, K. Wolff; Arkiv Produktion 479 2199)

Georg Friedrich Händel - ORLANDO (DGG/Arkiv 479 2199)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31Bejun Mehta (Orlando), Sophie Karthäuser (Angelica), Kristina Hammarström (Medoro), Sunhae Im (Dorinda), Konstantin Wolff (Zoroastro); B’Rock Orchestra Ghent; René Jacobs, conductor [Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Bruges, West Flanders, Belgium, during July and August 2013; Arkiv Produktion 479 2199; 2CD, 160:02; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

So influential was Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso in the three centuries immediately following its first publication in 1516 that the poem inspired three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s finest operas: Alcina, Ariodante, and Orlando. The tremendous musical and dramatic riches of the last of these render the fact that after the ten performances in the opera’s 1733 première production—for which the accomplished cast of Senesino, Anna Maria Strada del Pò, Celeste Gismondi, Francesca Bertolli, and Antonio Montagnana was assembled—the score was neglected until 1959 unbelievable. That as beautiful and moving an opera as Händel’s Orlando could be ignored while so many lackluster scores enjoyed the attention of great musicians is inexplicable. It is argued that singers capable of technical and stylistic competence in Händel’s music were absent from the world’s opera houses for two centuries after the composer’s death, but might the singer who excelled as Rossini’s Tancredi not have proved a fluent Orlando and the successful Gilda an effective Dorinda? Despite Händel having devoted to Orlando some of his most radical innovations, even now the opera is performed—and recorded—less frequently than several of its brethren in the Händel repertoire. In a committed, consistent performance like the one recorded here by Arkiv Produktion in spacious sound that allows attractive ‘bloom’ on both instrumental and vocal tones, Orlando emerges from the shadows as one of its composer’s most fully enjoyable operas. It is not only Orlando’s celebrated madness that drew from Händel an extraordinary display of his theatrical genius: the score contains a plethora of the most exalted pages in any of Händel’s operas. The Orlando discography is hardly a crowded field, but closely following the September 2013 release of Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s thoroughly enjoyable ATMA Classique recording this performance faces daunting competition. For listeners who cherish the music of Händel, the release of Arkiv’s recording richly expands an unheralded bounty: sonorously played and compellingly sung, this performance offers an unique perspective on one of the most intriguing operas of the Eighteenth Century.

In recent years, almost all of René Jacobs’s recordings have generated controversy, with the strictest adherents to historically-informed performance practices provoked to overt hostility by the liberties that Maestro Jacobs is inclined to take with scores. There are numerous points of contention in this Orlando, but the prevailing spirit that pervades the performance is one of legitimate affection for the music. There is no doubt that grandiose scenic effects were critically important to Eighteenth-Century opera, and the intricate stage machinery preserved in the theatre at Drottningholm Palace confirms the extent to which recreations of nature shaped the dramatic conventions of the day. The scene-setting sound effects employed in this performance—wind, thunder, birdsong, and the like—are engaging and authentic to the opera’s provenance, but their prevalence becomes wearying, especially when they sonically obstruct the continuo in secco recitatives. The continuo, provided with perfect virtuosity and dramatic energy by Andreas Küppers at the harpsichord, David Van Bouwel on harpsichord and organ, Shizuko Noiri on lute, and Elena Spotti on harp, presents additional grounds for discussion: though appropriate in its nods to the stylistic kinship of Orlando with earlier Italian and French models, particularly in Zoroastro’s scenes, it is virtually certain that Händel’s continuo in 1733 would not have included organ or harp. The inclusion of harp in the orchestra for Händel’s 1739 oratorio Saul was a great novelty, and there is no evidence to support the notion that Händel’s operatic continuo extended beyond harpsichord, lute or theorbo, and a bass instrument. The use of harp and organ in this recording may be historically incorrect, but it sharpens the dramatic bite of the performance grippingly. The playing of B’Rock Orchestra’s team of first-rate musicians is wonderful, the recorder parts done with particular brilliance by Bart Coen and Katelijne Lanneau. Maestro Jacobs’s choices of tempo are mostly ideal, and his conducting displays greater attention to the needs of the singers than has been heard in some of his recorded performances. There is also a more perceptible sense of collaboration among conductor, orchestra, and soloists than in many of Maestro Jacobs’s recordings: the boldest of his choices are integrated into a laudable pursuit of musical and dramatic vitality.

Zoroastro is one of Händel’s best bass rôles, and the expansiveness brought to his music by bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff captures the character’s innate dignity. Mr. Wolff’s grasp of the gravitas of Zoroastro’s utterances is apparent in the opera’s opening scene, and his delivery of his aria in Act One, ‘Lascia Amor e siegui Marte,’ is magisterial. Microphone placement emphasizes a slight unsteadiness on sustained tones that likely would not be noticeable in an opera house acoustic, but Mr. Wolff’s technique is equal to the demands of Zoroastro’s music. His singing of ‘Tra caligini profonde’ in Act Two is superb, and his performance of the bravura showpiece ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ in Act Three crackles with dramatic fire. It is in his broadly-phrased performance of the accompagnato ‘Tu, che del gran Tonante’ in the final minutes of the opera that Mr. Wolff is at his best: the stern magnanimity his singing has exuded throughout the performance reaches its zenith in his manipulation of the situation to ensure that all ends well. Vocally, Mr. Wolff’s handsome tone is unfailingly ingratiating, with only his lowest notes lacking authority. His Zoroastro is a subtle but unflappable presence in the drama.

Without affecting the shallow flamboyance assumed by some of her well-known colleagues in Baroque repertoire, mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström is quietly one of the best Händel singers in the world today. Her singing of Medoro in this performance is a splendid addition to her gallery of superlative operatic portraits. The dark beauty of her timbre does not detract from the credibility of her portrayal of a male character: in fact, she here sounds more believably masculine than many countertenors. In Act One, Ms. Hammarström’s performance of Medoro’s aria ‘Se ’l cor mai ti dirà’ is shaped with the masterful hand of a potter working fine clay, and she combines with Angelica in a lovely account of the duettino ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso.’ No less hypnotic is her singing in ‘Consolati, o bella,’ the terzetto with Angelica and Dorinda. Medoro’s arias ‘Verdi allori’ in Act Two and ‘Vorrei poterti amar’ in Act Three are both captivatingly sung. Whether singing cascades of coloratura or passages of concerted lyricism, Ms. Hammarström maintains uncompromising elegance and regality, but it is the glory of her vocalism that ultimately lingers in the memory among the ghosts of the best Händel performances past and present.

Soprano Sunhae Im is a frequent participant in Maestro Jacobs’s recording projects, and her voice is almost always heard with pleasure—never more so than in this performance of Orlando, in which her singing of Dorinda glistens with focused tone and luxuriant femininity. Ms. Im’s singing of the accompagnato ‘Quanto diletto avea’ in Act One pulses with emotional honesty, and her subsequent performance of the aria ‘Ho un certo rossore’ further heightens the impact of her uncomplicated approach to her part. The simple beauty of her singing of ‘O care parolette’ is very moving, and in Act Two the voice soars in her performance of the aria ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato.’ The pinnacle of Dorinda’s music is the superb ‘Amor è qual vento’ in Act Three, and Ms. Im devotes her finest singing to her performance of the aria. Every note that she sings on this recording is secure of intonation and unerringly placed in a sunny depiction of Dorinda, however, and the total success of her efforts is complemented by the insurmountable stylishness of her singing.

The charismatic, imperious Angelica of soprano Sophie Karthäuser is a fantastic foil to Ms. Im’s Dorinda. Ms. Karthäuser has developed into an uncommonly insightful singer, and in this performance she impresses by taking risks in her endeavors to breathe life into her character. In Act One, the technical faculty with which she sings the arias ‘Chi possessore è del mio core’ and ‘Se fedel vuoi ch’io ti creda’ is terrific, and the fluidity of her tone as it washes over the full range of the music is matchless. The aria ‘Non potrà dirmi ingrata’ in Act Two is sung with power and precision, but the radiance of Ms. Karthäuser’s performance of ‘Verdi piante’—one of those arias in which the genius of Händel shines like a sudden rush of moonlight through clouds—surpasses even the best of her singing in other scenes. From this point, she inhabits a lofty plane of musicality typified by her delicate delivery of the arioso ‘Amor, caro Amore!’ In Act Three, the aria ‘Così giusta è questa speme’ receives from Ms. Karthäuser a powerful reading, but her talents are revealed most tellingly in the duetto with Orlando ‘Finché prendi ancora il sangue,’ in which Angelica’s cantilena lines are contrasted with Orlando’s bravura interjections, and the duettino—also with Orlando—‘Per far, mia diletta.’ Ms. Karthäuser’s voice is not a plush instrument, but she cushions her timbre on carefully-managed suggestions of velvet. Though the otherwise infallible solidity of her performance is jeopardized by a few questionably-judged cadenzas, her ornamentation is mostly apt and natural; not always characteristics of the efforts of Maestro Jacobs’s leading ladies. The hints of haughtiness in Ms. Karthäuser’s performance nicely differentiate Angelica from Dorinda, and Ms. Karthäuser equals Ms. Im’s levels of accomplishment in musical performance and dramatic verisimilitude.

More so than in some of Händel’s operas, the title character in Orlando dominates the action—and the score—to an extent that makes an indifferent performance of the rôle of Orlando disastrous. The Orlando of countertenor Bejun Mehta is an assertive creation, and the strength and swagger with which he traverses the unusually demanding rôle are magnificent. From his entrance in Act One with the cavatina ‘Stimolato dalla gloria,’ which he sings beguilingly, Mr. Mehta never missteps in his journey through the upheavals of this errant nephew of Charlemagne. Both of Orlando’s arias in Act One, ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ and ‘Fammi combattere,’ benefit from the technical adroitness of Mr. Mehta’s singing, and the singer meets the challenges of Act Two—the aria ‘Cielo! Se tu il consenti,’ the lilting cavatina ‘Ah stigie larve,’ the cavatina ‘Già latra Cerbero,’ and the smoke-breathing accompagnato ‘Ma la Furia che sol mi diè martoro’—with consummate artistry and aplomb. Orlando’s contributions to Act Two culminate in the sublime aria ‘Vaghe pupille, non piangete,’ which Mr. Mehta sings with the beauty and breath control of a great exponent of bel canto. In Act Three, the vivacity and virtuosity that Mr. Mehta brings to the arioso ‘Unisca amor in noi,’ his aria ‘Già lo stringo,’ the knife’s-edge accompagnato ‘Già per la man d’Orlando,’ and the arioso ‘Già l’ebbro mio ciglio’ are ebullient and inspiring. Mr. Mehta is a passionate singer whose zealous dramatic portraits seldom lack tempestuousness, but the plangent, understated sadness that he manifests in his depiction of Orlando’s madness is poignant, and the profundity of his artistry is revealed in this performance in unexpected ways. There are moments in which the voice sounds slightly threadbare and pushed beyond comfortable limits, particularly in the highest reaches of cadenzas, but there are greater care and connection than in almost any of Mr. Mehta’s other recordings. It is not a cautious performance, but it is one in which this gifted singer bares his soul in music to which his voice is almost ideally suited.

Orlando is a great opera; not Händel’s greatest, surely, but one that is superior to many operas that are performed more frequently. Uniting a quintet of singers and a team of musicians under the direction of one of the most thought-provoking conductors of Baroque repertoire, this recording explores Orlando in ways that surprise and astonish. Not all of these ways are Händel’s, at least not as the details of the composer’s conceptions of the opera and the forces involved in its creation are understood, but they are rooted in a desire to give Orlando the kind of sorcery that it deserves. Its virtues silencing whispers about its vices, it is a performance that demands to be heard and refuses to be forgotten.