For this year’s Holland Festival,  artistic director Pierre Audi brought to Amsterdam the production of Handel’s Orlando he originally conceived in 2012 for the Flemish Opera. Conducted by baroque specialist René Jacobs and featuring an strong cast, it was a great occasion to witness American countertenor Bejun Mehta in what has become, over the past decade, his signature role.

Handel’s opera is based on Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. Orlando (Roland), Charlemagne’s most valiant paladin, has fallen in love with the pageant princess Angelica. She rejects him as she is herself in love with the African prince Medoro. Orlando’s jealousy drives him to a destructive madness.  It takes all the powers of the magician Zoroastro (Zoroaster) to bring him back to sanity.

Mr. Audi’s take on this tale is a very contemporary one: in his vision, Orlando is a firefighter whose madness turns him into a pyromaniac. Elements are a recurring theme in Mr. Audi’s work. Here, fire – both the fire of desire and the fire of destruction – is central. The stage is occupied by the skeleton of a house destroyed by fire that turns into a nightmarish landscape of ashes and glowing embers in act 2, representing Orlando’s madness, and is being reconstructed in the final act, as a symbol of hope. The superposition of video footage (Michael Saxers) with the sets (Christof Hetzers) adds depth and supports the narrative. Visually, it all works well and culminates in a spectacular tableau vivant at the end of the mad scene. My only reservation would be about be the sinister-looking cupids –  presumably a reference to nonreciprocal love – that at times wandered onto the stage and whom I found more distracting than anything.

Compared to Alcina and Ariodante, the two other operas Handel composed based on Ariosto’s epic, the narrative of Orlando is rather uneventful – which might be the reason why it has remained far less popular until very recently.  The opera really centres on the psychological portrayal of the main character in his delusional love.  It takes a compelling performer to convey the madness of a mythical eighteenth century opera character to a twenty-first century audience. Bejun Mehta’s performance was captivating. There might be countertenors with a more immediately appealing timbre on the international circuit, but I doubt any would match the Mr. Bejun’s power and characterisation. Vocally, the aplomb with which he negotiates the coloratura pyrotechnics of the exhilarated “Fammi combattere” or the desperate “Cielo, Si tu il contenti” is jaw-dropping, though perhaps even more so is his use of rubato in the mad scene “Ah stigie larvae !... Vaghe pupille”. Dramatically, he gives a riveting and very physical performance and appears to totally inhabit his character.

Lenneke Ruiten’s Angelica was only slightly less dramatically compelling than her suitor, and musically extremely appealing. I had only heard the Dutch soprano in Mozart before Monday, and, in the role in which she debuted, she demonstrated her voice is just as suited for this early bel canto repertoire. She displayed both beautiful and dramatically astute ornamentation in “Non potrà dirmi ingrata” and was very moving in the contrasting aria that followed “Verdi piante”.

Sunhae Im’s clear soprano provided the perfect foil for Ms. Ruiten’s Angelica. Ms. Im gave a charming performance as the young peasant girl Darinda. Her engaging presence, musicality and pinpoint precision earned her loud applause from the public at the end of the difficult aria “Amor è qual vento”.  The somewhat wimpish Medoro does not get the most exciting music, but mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström was a convincing prince and brought beauty of timbre and lyricism to the role. One might have wished more authority from Zoroastro, perhaps the most exciting bass role Handel ever wrote, but baritone-bass Konstantin Wolff boosted a pleasant timbre and an engaging presence as the great magician.

René Jacobs drew exciting dark colours from the excellent B’rock Orchestra. As always with the Belgian maestro, changes in tempi, volume and colour, as well as sound effects (wind, thunder), are not for the faint-hearted : his energy and sense of drama unveiled the theatrical character the score. Even the continuo, rich in nuances, succeeded in keeping the audience on its toes.