07 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Franz Joseph Haydn — ORLANDO PALADINO (K. Alston, C. Orr, D. Maize, T. Bradford, G. Meinke, K. Spooner, D. Romano, E. Wood, J. Ray; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, 5 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Orlando paladino, Hob. XXVIII:11Kameron Alston (Orlando), Carolyn Orr (Angelica), David Maize (Medoro), Toby Bradford (Pasquale), Gabi Meinke (Eurilla), Kevin Spooner (Rodomonte), Danielle Romano (Alcina) Ethan Wood (Caronte), Jackson Ray (Licone); UNCSA School of Music Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Director; Gisela Estrada, Scenic Designer; Logan Benson, Costume Designer; Petko Novosad, Lighting Designer; Madi Pattillo, Wig and Makeup Designer; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stevens Center of the UNCSA, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 5 February 2023]

Historians now theorize that the famous remark about the superlative quality of opera performances at Eszterháza, the country seat of the princes Esterházy, attributed for generations to Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, is apocryphal, but the long-accepted legitimacy of the sentiment is a testament to the artistic fecundity of Franz Joseph Haydn’s four-decade tenure in the Esterházy musical establishment. The theater built at Eszterháza by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy transformed the rural estate, located in modern Hungary and at a considerable distance from the social and artistic milieux of both Vienna and Schloss Esterházy in the Bergenland, into a center of operatic activity in central Europe. The effects of Eszterháza’s geographical and cultural isolation on the stylistic evolution of Haydn’s music is documented in the composer’s own words and audible in the many pieces that he wrote as the Esterházy Kapellmeister. His operas are among the Haydn works that are least familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences: aside from Armida and Orfeo ed Euridice, occasionally programmed as curiosities, these innovative pieces dwell in libraries and musicological tomes rather than in opera houses and concert halls. Imperial acclaim for opera at Eszterháza may have been exaggerated or invented, but has hyperbole not proved to be a key that opens doors in this new millennium?

Maria Theresa had been dead for nearly two years when Haydn’s opera Orlando paladino was first performed at Eszterháza on 6 December 1782, six months after the respective Munich and Vienna premières of Salieri’s Semiramide and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, with which works Haydn’s score shares elements of genre hybridization and exoticism. Its libretto adapted by Nunziato Porta, himself a composer, from an earlier operatic text by Carlo Francesco Badini, Orlando paladino brought one of the most widely-traveled sources of operatic inspiration in the Eighteenth Century, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, to Eszterháza in a setting in which Haydn both celebrated and satirized the opera seria conventions of Baroque opera. In Orlando paladino, the lovesick madness of the Frankish knight Roland is depicted with wry humor, parodying the emotional melodrama found in many settings of the tale, yet Haydn’s opera abounds with genuine pathos. This dichotomy seemingly resonated with audiences at and beyond Eszterháza, not least in Prague, where Mozart conducted performances of Orlando paladino whilst supervising the inaugural production of his La clemenza di Tito in 1791. In the years between its 1782 première and the composer’s death in 1809, Orlando paladino became the most performed of Haydn’s operas.

Boldly venturing where professional opera companies fear to tread, A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts furthered a legacy of staging demanding works like Händel’s Rodelinda and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix by bringing Haydn’s Orlando paladino to Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center. With brilliantly creative scenic designs by Gisela Estrada, their visual depth enhanced by Petko Novosad’s lighting, Haydn’s captivating musical adventure was launched into the realm of science fiction. The action playing out in settings that might have been borrowed from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Artistic Director Steven LaCosse explored the psychological subtleties of Haydn’s music, Porta’s words, and Ariosto’s story with Twenty-First-Century sensibilities allied with respect for the opera’s historical context.

Like many of his stagings in Winston-Salem, LaCosse’s Orlando paladino was centered upon meaningful interactions among characters, their motivations elucidated by their gestures and postures. Logan Benson’s costume designs and Madi Pattillo’s wigs and makeup heightened the visual appeal of the concept, their whimsy accentuating the vividness of the opera’s dramatic confrontations. In LaCosse’s realization, the comedic episodes were often uproarious, and the silence that enveloped the theater in moments of fear and sorrow affirmed the immediacy with which the opera’s touches of tragedy were presented.

IN REVIEW: tenor TOBY BRADFORD as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]Lo scudiero musicale: tenor Toby Bradford as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

Encompassing Baroque bravura, the Classicism that was his hallmark, and precursors of bel canto, Haydn’s writing for voices and orchestra in Orlando paladino is remarkably varied. Perhaps accounting for the opera’s wide appeal to Eighteenth-Century audiences, the stylistic heterogeneity of the music makes leading performances of Orlando paladino difficult for modern conductors, no matter how diverse their experience may be. An insightful interpreter of an uncommon breadth of repertoire, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Music Director James Allbritten conducted this performance of Orlando paladino with flair and finesse. The musical structure of each number was emphasized in a manner that at once revealed its originality and occupied a finite place within the opera’s dramatic progression.

The organic pacing of recitatives, aided by Lucas Wong’s expert playing of the harpsichord continuo, complemented judicious tempi in arias and ensembles. The musicians of the UNCSA School of Music Orchestra demonstrated that any notions of Haydn’s music being easy are ridiculous, their work in this performance occasionally flawed but consistently spirited. Rather than approaching Orlando paladino as a piece that needs conductorial intervention in order to succeed with modern audiences, Allbritten conducted with the same confidence in the quality of the music that guides his performances of Verdi repertoire. It was Haydn’s music, not a conductor’s ego, that made this performance so engrossing.

Haydn did not write an aria for the shepherd Licone, who begins the opera with a frantic scene with his daughter Eurilla and the blustering knight Rodomonte, but baritone Jackson Ray sang each of the character’s lines resiliently. Licone’s alarm trembled in Ray’s vocalism in the terzetto, and the meaning of each word of recitative was apparent, needing no projected translation.

His brief scene at the start of Act Three enacted before an eerily gorgeous backdrop that evoked Utah’s otherworldly Landscape Arch, the mythical ferryman Caronte is a stylistic kinsman of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though Haydn’s character is the instrument of deliverance from doom rather than the harbinger of damnation. Lower voices often mature later and more slowly than their higher counterparts, and bass Ethan Wood did not yet possess the sepulchral resonance that Caronte’s music ideally requires. Still, his voicing of the hauntingly lovely aria ‘Ombre insepolte, di qua partite’ was stirring, and he declaimed Caronte’s lines, strangely menacing and benevolent, in the accompagnato ‘L’irremeabil onda’ with gravitas, capitalizing on the ingenuity of Haydn’s writing and the part’s significance in the drama.

A figure familiar from operas by Caccini, Vivaldi, and Händel, the sorceress Alcina is the moral force who safeguards true love in Orlando paladino, protecting the imperiled Angelica and Medoro and ultimately curing Orlando of the madness of his infatuation with Angelica. Only in Act One did Haydn grant his Alcina an aria, the bracing ‘Ad un guardo, ad un ceddo solo,’ but, after singing the aria electrifyingly, mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano lorded over the performance with unforced sovereignty, acting with Sophia Loren-like glamor and declaiming each of the sorceress’s pronouncements with irrefutable authority. Her glowing-amber timbre shone in Haydn’s music, the voice shimmering from guttural low notes to a gleaming top.

Wielding a flinty timbre and a fabulous maniacal laugh, baritone Kevin Spooner enlivened the Barbarian king Rodomonte with forceful singing and stage savvy worthy of a blockbuster action film. Rushing onto the stage in Act One as though he were ejected from a neighboring galaxy, this Rodomonte terrorized Eurilla and Licone amusingly, his words slashing as threateningly as his sword. Spooner sang the aria ‘Temerario! Senti e trema’ commandingly, only the lowest notes lacking impact. ‘Dove si cela mai’ in the Act One finale was delivered with boundless energy, and Rodomonte’s aria in Act Two, ‘Mille lampi d’accese faville,’ was delivered with swaggering bravado. Setting a standard for his colleagues, Spooner enunciated every line in recitatives and ensembles incisively, the vigor of his performance enhancing the comedy of the contrast between Rodomonte’s bombast and the other characters’ plights.

A temperamental ancestress of Richard Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Haydn’s flirtatious shepherdess Eurilla serves as a foil for the regal, melancholy Angelica. Soprano Gabi Meinke limned Eurilla’s capricious playfulness with great charm, evident at her first entrance with Licone in Act One. She sang the aria ‘Ah, se dice io vi potessi’ delightfully and voiced Eurilla’s lines in ensembles brightly and clearly. Meinke’s best singing came in the scenes with Pasquale, particularly the Act Two duetto, in which her account of ‘Quel tuo vinetto amabile’ beguiled. Occasional shrillness in the upper register in the first act was largely absent after the interval, the voice sounding more focused in the opera’s final scenes. Meinke’s theatrical instincts were unerring throughout the afternoon, making each of Eurilla’s appearances in the opera a joy.

A product of the tradition of Sancho Panza-esque servant figures in Baroque opera that also yielded Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Orlando’s witty but none-too-valiant squire Pasquale was spectacularly portrayed by tenor Toby Bradford. Haydn wrote music of extraordinary difficulty for Pasquale, subjecting the singer to virtually every virtuosic feat that could have been expected of a tenor in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Bradford not only coped but fully conquered, meeting every challenge of the part with astonishing sangfroid. Introducing the character in Act One with the cavatina ‘La mia bella m’ha detto di nò,’ Bradford sang fetchingly, his crisp phrasing imparting Pasquale’s irrepressible exuberance.

The cracking patter aria ‘Ho viaggiato in Francia, in Spagna’ and Act Two cavatina ‘Vittoria, vittoria’ were jubilantly dispatched, and Bradford voiced ‘Il cavallo ed il padrone’ in the duetto with Eurilla fetchingly. Relocated in this production from Act Two to Act Three, the celebrated aria ‘Ecco spiano, ecco il mio trillo’ was sung with dazzling techical aplomb, the long-sustained tone at the start of the aria, the ornaments, and the ascents into the vocal stratosphere adroitly handled. A depiction of Pasquale as accomplished as Bradford’s would be notable in any of the world’s great opera houses: in this university production, it was nothing short of sensational.

IN REVIEW: soprano CAROLYN ORR as Angelica (left) and tenor DAVID MAIZE as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]I teneri amanti: soprano Carolyn Orr as Angelica (left) and tenor David Maize as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

As in many of Händel’s operas, it is not the title character but the secondo uomo who is the romantic lead in Orlando paladino. In tenor David Maize’s performance of the rôle, the conflicted but faithful Medoro merited his Angelica’s devotion, his every doubt and pang of regret expressed with vocalism of incredible beauty. The Act One aria ‘Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso’ was hauntingly sung, the character’s inner turmoil conveyed through the interplay of anguish and repose in the vocal line. Similar qualities permeated Maize’s traversal of Medoro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Dille che un infelice,’ the vocal shading paralleling the moods of the text. The duetto with Angelica, ‘Qual contento io provo in seno,’ displayed the depth of the tenor’s artistry, his mastery of florid writing equal to the music’s most demanding moments. So endearing was Maize’s portrayal that the barbarians’ unforeseen wounding of Medoro drew agonized gasps from the audience. Alcina’s deus ex machina healing of his injury resuscitated the heart of the performance, which beat most palpably when Maize was singing.

The tormented Queen of Cathay Angelica, madly in love with Medoro but relentlessly pursued by Orlando, was brought to life with passion and poise by soprano Carolyn Orr. In her entrancing cavatina in Act One, ‘Palpita ad ogni istante,’ Orr’s Angelica created an aura of noble suffering that persisted until the opera’s dénouement, when the queen’s suffering at last ended. The aria ‘Non partir, mia bella face’ disclosed the effort expended in singing Haydn’s music, the fiorature sounding labored but never dodged or simplified. Orr phrased the adagio in the Act One finale, ‘Sento nel seno, oh dio,’ gracefully, communicating the panoply of emotions by which Angelica is plagued. Her account of the aria ‘Aure chete, verdi allori’ throbbed with raw feeling, and yearning simmered in her voicing of the accompagnato ‘Fra queste selve invan.’

Orr sang ‘Non fia mai, che venga meno’ in the duetto with Medoro mesmerizingly, Angelica’s love soaring in the music, and her reading of the accompagnato ‘Implacabili numi!’ in Act Three was the work of a talented singing actress. Some sopranos would justly complain that it was cruel of Haydn to place an aria as difficult as ‘Dell’estreme sue voci dolenti’ so late in the opera, but Orr was inspired by the music’s obstacles, singing with abandon. In all of Angelica’s scenes, Orr sang intrepidly, the flickers of vocal strain integrated into a laudably thoughtful portrait of the beleaguered queen.

Tenor Kameron Alston, who will return to Stevens Center in March 2023 as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, enriched his portrayal of the unhinged Orlando with vocal sheen and psychological introspection, eschewing excessive caricature. The excellent Carlo in Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 staging of Linda di Chamounix, Alston found nothing in Haydn’s music that overwhelmed his technical resources. As in Händel’s Orlando, much of the eponymous paladin’s madness transpires in mercurial accompagnati rather than in arias. In Act One, Alston articulated the accompagnato ‘Angelica, mio ben’ urgently, the character’s mental instability obvious in his words but never undermining the tenor’s vocal security.

Alston voiced the aria ‘D’Angelica il nome!’ with angst befitting Orlando’s affliction, and the accompagnato ‘Oimè, qual tetro oggetto!’ and aria ‘Cosa vedo! Cosa sento!’ in Act Two were sculpted with the delicacy of a gifted bel canto singer, only a pair of piano notes above the stave that threatened to crack betraying the toil involved in singing this daunting music. In the scene with Caronte at the beginning of Act Three, Alston’s vocalism was shaded with tragic overtones. His singing of the accompagnato ‘Sogno? Veglio? Cos’è?’ was riveting, and the aria ‘Miei pensieri, dove siete?’ was sublime. The preternatural restoration of Orlando’s reason can perhaps never be believable for modern audiences, but Alston’s amusing depiction of the knight’s loss of any memory of his love for Angelica was cunningly credible. Alston was the keystone of a phenomenal ensemble of artists, musical and technical, who rousingly reincarnated Haydn’s score. Maria Theresa may not have actually said that it was to Eszterháza that she went to hear opera of the highest quality, but Fletcher Opera Institute’s performance of Orlando paladino would unquestionably have earned the royal approbation for Winston-Salem.