GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31 — Daniel Moody (Orlando), Molly Quinn (Angelica), Sheila Dietrich (Dorinda), Angela Young Smucker (Medoro), Peter Walker (Zoroastro); Staunton Music Festival Baroque Orchestra; Carsten Schmidt, conductor [Timothy Nelson, stage director; Emily Becher-McKeever, lighting designer; Maria Bissex, costume designer; Staunton Music Festival, Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia, USA; Friday, 11 August 2023]
As their careers progressed, prominent singers in the first half of the Eighteenth Century must have come to know the characters who populate Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, first published in fragmentary form in 1516, as well as they knew people with whom they interacted in their daily lives. So prevalent were operatic adaptations of Ariosto’s work that episodes like Orlando’s madness became fodder for parody, the excesses of composers’ depictions of the epic’s dramatic situations drawing derision as the Baroque era waned. Nevertheless, the appeal of Ariosto’s verses was so strong in the 1730s that they were the source for three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s operas for the London stage: Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina. Appearing in rapid succession in 1735, the second and third of these were more successful than the first, which, following its inaugural production, was not revived until the Twentieth Century. Now regarded as one of Händel’s most original and stageworthy operas, Orlando accounts for much of today’s audiences’ acquaintance with Ariosto’s poem, the themes of which are thoughtfully expounded in Händel’s tautly-constructed score.
The cast assembled for the first performance of Orlando included five of the most renowned singers of the period, all of whom frequently collaborated with Händel. With the castrato Senesino in the title rôle, sopranos Anna Maria Strada del Pò and Celeste Gismondi as Angelica, the queen of Cathay, and the shepherdess Dorinda, contralto Francesca Bertolli as the Moorish prince Medoro, and bass Antonio Montagnana as the sorcerer Zoroastro, Händel would have been justified in expecting Orlando to be awarded a rapturous reception, but, despite a respectable tally of performances in its initial run, appreciation for the work was modest. Complex plots like Orlando’s were typical of Baroque opera and, if contemporary assessments by journalists and diarists can be believed, were accepted by Londoners with little complaint. Were the psychological nuances of these characters and their interactions the bricks in the wall that arose between Orlando and Händel’s patrons?
Bridging the chasms of time and sensibilities separating Twenty-First-Century theatergoers from Orlando’s marvels was a discernible goal and a notable achievement of Staunton Music Festival’s semi-staged prroduction of the opera. Presenting a work with theatrical effects as extravagant as those expected by audiences at the time of Orlando’s 1733 première at London’s King’s Theatre challenges any company, but performing Orlando in a space like Staunton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, the venue for SMF’s performance, begets obstacles that would have confounded even Händel’s storied creative shrewdness. Capitalizing on imaginative but wholly practical lighting designs by Emily Becher-McKeever, evocative artwork by violinist Ingrid Matthews, and straightforward costume designs by Maria Bissex that facilitated identification of each character, stage director Timothy Nelson conjured Orlando’s peculiar atmosphere with cleverness that minimized the venue’s disadvantages. The opera’s supernatural effects were handled with economy, but it was Nelson’s attention to the interplay among the characters that engendered the performances’s most memorable dramatic moments.
Nelson’s emphasis on the relationships that propel Orlando’s diegesis was mirrored by SMF Baroque Orchestra’s and conductor Carsten Schmidt’s focus on the intricate orchestral writing that contributes indelibly to the opera’s effectiveness. Schmidt both supported the singers and respected Händel’s directions by setting tempi that allowed textual and musical phrases to progress organically. Regrettably, adherence to Händel’s score was otherwise marred by numerous cuts and omission of the B sections and repeats of most of the opera’s da capo arias. [Orlando lost the accompagnato ‘Itene pur tremando, anime vili’ in Act One. Angelica was deprived of the Act One arias ‘Chi possessore è del mio core’ and ‘Se fede vuoi, ch'io ti creda’ and her aria ‘Non potrà dirmi ingrata’ in Act Two. Also absent from Act Two were Dorinda’s aria ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’ and Medoro’s aria ‘Verdi allori sempre unito.’] The cast’s verbal intelligibility in recitatives, imperiled by the church’s acoustic, was substantially aided by lutenist and theorbist Paul Holmes Morton’s and harpsichordist Gabe Shuford’s deft handling of the continuo. Händel’s writing for wind instruments in Orlando is inventive, often recalling the operas of Campra and Montéclair, and SMF’s musicians performed their parts marvelously. In truth, there was no member of the orchestra whose playing deviated from the high standard established and sustained by Schmidt.
Opera in chiesa: the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia), the venue for Staunton Music Festival’s performance of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Orlando, 11 August 2023
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts]
In order to avoid the type of overwrought caricature that spurred the satirical spoofing of Baroque opera, the strategizing sorcerer Zoroastro—Orlando’s protector of true love and purveyor of reason—must be portrayed with ethical rectitude and vocal authority. From his first accompagnato in Act One, ‘Geroglifici eterni,’ powerfully declaimed, bass Peter Walker lent Zoroastro’s manipulation of the opera’s plot dramatic credibility and musical exhilaration. Entreating Orlando to abandon his amorous pursuits and resume his quest for martial glory, Walker’s Zoroastro voiced the aria ‘Lascia Amor, e segui Marte!’ commandingly, the divisions dispatched with ease. Zoroastro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tra caligini profonde,’ was also sung with galvanizing bravado. The gravitas with which Walker declaimed the accompagnato ‘Impari ognun da Orlando’ in Act Three imparted the danger posed by Orlando’s psychological instability, and his thrilling account of the aria ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ palpitated with dramatic tension. Guiding the opera to its peaceful resolution, this Zoroastro’s noble singing of the accompagnato ’Tu che del gran tonante’ revealed the depth of his concern for Orlando. A few of Walker’s lowest notes disappeared into the sonic quagmire of the church sanctuary, but the voice’s burnished timbre and the singer’s skillful management of it were always audible.
Portraying the young prince Medoro, found injured in battle and nursed back to health by Angelica whilst concealed in Dorinda’s abode, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was more adversely affected than her colleagues by the over-resonant acoustic, yet the voice was projected with indomitable resourcefulness. Following Angelica into the fracas of Act One, his ‘E il mio cor da me diviso’ expanding her arioso into a duetto, Young Smucker’s Medoro was an eager but considerate paramour. The mezzo-soprano sang the aria ‘Se il cor mai ti dirà’ excitingly, her strong lower register reminding the audience of the character’s machismo, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto with Angelica and Dorinda was voiced with sincerity and glowing tone. The excision of Medoro’s aria in Act Two was unfortunate, but the prince’s words was uttered with significance. Young Smucker’s best singing of the evening was reserved for the aria ‘Vorrei poterti amar’ in Act Three, each note of which was produced with feeling and stylistic acumen. In this performance, Medoro’s reconciliation with Orlando was uncommonly sincere, Young Smucker having tempered the young Moor’s impulsiveness with inviolable integrity.
Surviving assessments of her singing by well-informed Eighteenth-Century operaphiles suggest that the epithet by which Händel’s first Dorinda was known, La Celestina, was appropriate. Her no-less-heavenly successor in the rôle, soprano Sheila Dietrich, enlivened SMF’s Orlando with a captivating, splendidly-sung characterization of Dorinda. In Act One, Dietrich voiced the accompagnato ‘Quanto diletto avea tra questi boschi’ with boundless charm, and, throughout the performance, the uncontrived lightness of her deportment differentiated the unpretentious Dorinda from the grander Angelica. The arias ‘Ho un certo rossore’ and ‘O care parolette, o dolci sguardi’ were sung with technical assurance and tonal shading that conveyed the shepherdess’s emotional transitions. Reacting to Angelica and Medoro, ‘Non so consolarmi’ in the terzetto divulged Dorinda’s dismay.
Dietrich’s voicing of the arioso ‘Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti’ at the start of Act Two was sublime, exhibiting the theatrical genius that distinguishes Händel’s best operas. ‘Ed innestar tu vuoi’ in the duetto with Orlando in Act Three was delivered with urgency, but it was Dietrich’s singing of the rollicking aria ‘Amor è qual vento,’ its cadenza capped with a radiant interpolated top C♯, that won the performance’s most enthusiastic ovation. In the opera’s final scene, Dorinda’s joy and relief were palpable. Dietrich’s argent timbre was sporadically covered by the orchestra, but her avoidance of forcing tones allowed her voice to gleam untarnished.
The tonal purity and quick vibrato of soprano Molly Quinn’s voice arrayed Angelica’s music in aptly aristocratic colors and textures, the delicate subtlety of her interpretation of text not precluding fierce outbursts of temper. ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ in the Act One duetto with Medoro was sung with enchanting limpidity of line, the emotions as clear as the words, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto allied tender yearning with unnerving uncertainty, communicated by vocalism of unerring eloquence. Quinn’s time-halting performance of the hauntingly beautiful aria ‘Verdi piante, erbette liete’ in Act Two movingly evinced the inherent longing for tranquility that motivates Angelica. Bringing perceptible insight to Angelica’s dramatic development in Act Three, the soprano phrased the aria ‘Così giusta è questa speme’ with insurmountable assurance. In the duetto with Orlando, she articulated ‘Finché prendi ancora il sangue’ vividly. Likely falling victim to the unfavorable soundscape, Quinn’s intonation was fleetingly imprecise, but no momentary lapses in confidence undermined the prevailing poise of her performance.
The rôles written by Händel for Senesino pose a number of problems to modern singers of any gender. Most troublesome for some countertenor exponents of parts like Orlando are the strength and agility at the bottom of the range required by the music. One of the most noteworthy aspects of countertenor Daniel Moody’s performance as Orlando for SMF was the evenness of his voice across tbe part’s full range, no weakness compromising the lowest reaches of the compass. The ethereal sheen of his timbre immediately intimated an aura of mental vulnerability in the arioso ‘Stimolato dalla gloria’ in Act One. The accompagnato ‘Immagini funeste’ was acted as scintillatingly as it was sung, and ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ received a performance of engrossing theatricality. The famed aria ‘Fammi combattere’—its da capo observed, permitting Moody to venture demanding but tasteful ornamentation—was rightly a bravura tour de force, the fiorature sung with verve and virility. In the opera’s second act, the aria ‘Cielo! Se tu il consenti’ was voiced with élan, the words sensitively enunciated, and desolation echoed in ‘Dove, dove guidate, o Furie.’
The depiction of Orlando’s descent into madness that ends Act Two—and closed the first half of SMF’s two-part arrangement of the opera—is one of Händel’s most unique scenes, and Moody’s performance realized the music’s full expressive potential. Voicing the accompagnato ‘Ah stigie larve! Ah scellerati spettri’ with vehemence, his navigation of the alternating recitative and repetitions of ‘Vaghe pupille, non piangete, no’ manifesting the wanderings of Orlando’s mind with graphic realism. The warrior’s delirium persisted in Act Three, ‘Unisca amor in noi’ in the duetto with Dorinda and the aria ‘Già lo stringo, già l’abbraccio’ voiced with abandon. In the duetto with Angelica, Moody uttered ‘Sol ha sete di sangue il mio cor’ with anguished confusion.
Disbelief and self-recrimination surfaced in the accompagnato ‘Già per la man d’Orlando,’ and the magnificent aria ‘Già l'ebbro mio ciglio’ was sung with stunningly beautiful tone and touching introspection. ‘Per far, mia diletta’ and ‘Vinse incanti, battaglie, e fieri mostri’ traced the course of Orlando’s return to sanity, their texts accented with gradual awareness of the events that had transpired. Launching the opera’s closing ensemble, Moody sang ‘Trionfa oggi ’l mio cor’ jubilantly. Though the truncation of Hândel’s score was lamentable, Moody and his colleagues demonstrated that Orlando’s musical sophistication and dramatic cohesiveness rely not upon lavish staging but upon the earnest efforts of gifted singers and musicians who understand, respect, and dedicate themselves to serving the music.