Handel’s opera Orlando is famous for the great mad scene at the end of Act 2. The opera takes its plot from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso – in particular the episode of the knight Orlando’s unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica, which drives him to madness. The title role was specifically written for the celebrated castrato Senesino, and it’s an emotionally powerful ten-minute monologue. In the two previous staged productions of Orlando which I’ve seen (one at Covent Garden and the other at La Monnaie), the director’s interpretation of the opera was dark and sombre and the mad scene was taken seriously, but in this concert performance by David Bates and La Nuova Musica, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo took the role of Orlando with a lighter and if anything, a slightly comical touch, offering a different perspective to this opera.

Lawrence Zazzo
© Justin Hyer

In many ways, this opera deviates from the prototype of Handel operas. There is only one pair of lovers in the opera – Angelica and Medoro – and although musically there is a sort of lieto fine chorus at the end, both Orlando and Dorinda are left on their own. Then there is the intriguing role of the magician Zoroastro, (the role reminds one of the Christian Magician in Rinaldo, but it is more substantial) who intervenes in the plot and rescues Orlando from his madness. Musically also, this opera is more varied than the usual recitative-aria repetition: there are three duets and a terzetto, as well as dramatic accompanied recitatives. Above all, each character has its own distinct musical style and Bates and the orchestra underlined this well, as well as articulating the various moods of the arias, lively, lyrical, playful or furious.

Bates had assembled a fine cast of Handelian singers for this opera, many of whom have worked regularly with him and his group. Still, in a concert performance, how much to play the role “in character” while singing from the score is left to the singers themselves. Zazzo plunged himself in and played the unhinged Orlando with hyper energy and comical touch, drawing laughs from the audience. Compared to the recent crop of young virtuosic countertenors, his coloratura may lack technical punch, but he has a warm and bright timbre and he was compelling in the mad scene. Angelica is not an easy role to pull off, as she spends the whole opera being stalked by Orlando, but Lucy Crowe played her with elegance. As always, she impressed with her gorgeous tone and sparkling technique, although I had some reservations about the rather laborious ornamentation in her Act 2 aria “Verdi piante” (in general the da capo decorations of arias felt too elaborate).

Christopher Lowrey was an assured Medoro, although his stage presence was rather passive. Rowan Pierce was charming as the naïve shepherdess Dorinda, singing her catchy arias such as “O care parolette” with a light, silvery voice. Meanwhile, baritone William Berger brought out a suave and lyrical side to the role of Zoroastro which usually given to a deeper-voiced bass or bass-baritone. His aria “Sorge infausta una procella” in the third act, sung as he raises a storm, was one of my vocal highlights of the evening, supported by gutsy instrumental playing.

The orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Bates, played with incisiveness, precision and disciplined ensemble. His choice of tempi was well-judged and singer-friendly, never taking arias at breakneck speed like some Baroque conductors. Interestingly, he is not afraid of a bit of rubato when he wants to shape a particular phrase or emphasise harmonic cadence. I found this approach refreshing. Individual players excelled in their solos too, including the leader Anaïs Chen in Angelica’s Act 1 arioso, and there was even a tender viola duet moment (unusual for Handel!) in Orlando’s final aria.

The evening sped by (understandably there were a couple of cuts), and as concert performances go, it was hugely enjoyable and entertaining. I’m sure this cast would work well on stage as well if they have the opportunity. Moreover, it was gratifying to see St John’s Smith Square packed with enthusiastic fans and supporters who seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.