Petersen, Pendatchanska, Im; Randle, Staveland, Torres, Spagnoli; Freiburger Barockorchester, R. Jacobs. Production: Lowery & Hosseinpour. EuroArts 2057784 (Blu-ray), 2057788 (DVD), 168 mins., subtitled
Toward the end of Act II of Orlando Paladino,the mad knight Orlando browbeats his terrified servant Pasquale into summoning the sorceress Alcina. The situation is remarkably similar to one in Act II of Don Giovanni, when the Don forces Leporello to confront the Commendatore's statue. But the comparison suggests reasons why Haydn's dramma eroicomico, written just five years before Mozart's masterpiece, has been relegated to the status of a footnote. Haydn sets the passage in contrasting strophes — an ambling, bucolic strain (Pasquale's rustic simplicity) with fast, furious interjections (the fearsome task ahead). It's an apt realization of the situation, but it has nowhere near the impact of "O statua gentilissima," in which Leporello's timorousness, the Don's sadism and the terrifying presence of the statue all are synthesized into a single, cohesive musical and dramatic statement.
This being Haydn, the opera is full of rewarding music — and conductor René Jacobs makes a strong case for it. Orlando Paladino provides its seven leading singers with opportunities for virtuoso display and tender reverie. A slow movement in the Act I finale has the contemplative beauty of similar moments in the Mozart–da Ponte operas. The beginning of Act III, when the characters find themselves meeting the ferryman Charon on the border of the underworld, calls forth music of luminous intensity. But it is not a theatrically compelling piece. The hand-me-down libretto, by Nunziato Porto, recycling familiar elements from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso,is a lumpy bit of business. It centerson Orlando's unhinged infatuation with Angelica, Queen of Cathay: he holds her prisoner while she and her lover Medoro try to elude his clutches. But the danger he poses never seems real, especially since Alcina intervenes at regular intervals as a deus ex machina, undoing his malfeasances. As a result, the opera unfolds more as a series of episodes than as a drama heading toward a resolution.
This 2009 staging from the Berlin Staatsoper, codirected by Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour, stresses the "comico" in "eriocomico." This is probably in keeping with the composer's intent: madness may have been an occasion for pathos in the early nineteenth century, but in this opera, it seems cause for mirth. Much of the piece is here played as antic burlesque, in the manner of Peter Sellars's classic production of Handel's Giulio Cesare — or, for that matter, David McVicar's recent Glyndebourne take on the same opera. Angelica travels with a portrait of herself in beauty-pageant regalia; Orlando's rival Rodomonte, costumed as a Gilbert-and- Sullivanesque pirate, has an aria in which he repeatedly cuts off his own hand. I did wonder whether a soberer staging might have revealed emotional depths unplumbed here. But certainly, lively invention is preferable to arid piety, and it's entirely possible, given the limitations of the work itself, that this is the most valid way to approach Orlando Paladino.
Hosseinpour is a choreographer, and indeed, the performance is all but danced throughout, the performers moving with semaphoric gestures timed to the music.Lowery, as production designer, has placed the first two acts on a giant turntable, shifting the action back and forth from the citadel that serves as Angelica's castle to an enchanted, Disneyesque forest — a nice evocation of the splendors of the Esterházy palace theater. The stage is all but bare for the otherworldly Act III, but it is filled with an eerie, almost sculptural blue-green light.
The cast features three excellent sopranos, presenting a study in contrasts. Marlis Petersen, as the opera's heroine, Angelica, is ever-so-slightly chilly in demeanor, but this may well be an interpretive choice: the distancing effect of her stage manner meshes with the production's postmodern aesthetic. Her voice is not a lush one, but it is pure and sweet. Angelica's arias may not be as vertiginous as the Queen of the Night's, but they demand the same level of fleetness, and here Petersen shines: the tone remains poised even in the most intricate passagework. Sunhae Im brings a bell-like leggiero soprano to role of the shepherdess, Eurilla — Orlando Paladino's "Zerlina." She plays the role as an earnest girl guide, abjuring conventional operatic-soubrette coyness and emerging all the more winsome for it. Best of all is Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Alcina; her tone loses none of its darkness and complexity in the role's trickiest coloratura passages. The role as written is not a large one, but Jacobs has augmented it with the bravura "Ragion nell'alma siede," from Il Mondo della Luna, interpolated right before the finale and serving as the performance's eleven-o'clock number.
The men are less uniformly impressive. Tenor Tom Randle does not consistently keep Orlando's agitato vocal lines firmly on pitch, perhaps owing to the frenetic stage business that he is given to execute. (During his Act I aria, "D'Angelica il nome!" he has to hurl small trees into the wings.) As the production presents the weak-willed Medoro, he is anything but a romantic hero: he's made up to look like Sweeney Todd. But surely the role has lyrical possibilities that Magnus Staveland, with his tight-throated tenor, doesn't touch. Pietro Spagnoli is appropriately boorish as the nitwitted Rodomonte, but I found myself wishing he could nonetheless bring more refinement to the singing itself.
Baritone Victor Torres, as Pasquale, takes a more precise approach to Haydn's vocal lines. Using a voice lighter than that of a typical buffo (it has a near-tenorial quality), Torres gives each note its full intonational value. He is a large man, but physically deft, and his pairing with the diminutive Im has a charming Mutt-and-Jane quality. Jacobs's reading is full of crackling energy, and the sounds produced by the marvelous Freiburg Baroque Orchestra have an almost tactile quality — occasionally raw, but stunningly immediate.
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