In Pierre Audi’s new production of Handel’s Orlando, currently running at La Monnaie in Brussels (until 12 May, and thereafter available free online on their website for three weeks), the knight Orlando is portrayed as a modern-day fireman who in his fascination with fire has become an arsonist – “pyromane” as Audi explains in the programme. I have to confess I spent the whole evening trying to come to terms with this concept and came out of the theatre still unconvinced.

Audi’s concept of depicting Orlando as a fireman turned arsonist is inspired by a scene in Act 3 of the opera where Orlando in a rage destroys the shepherdess Dorinda’s hut. Audi took the view that the hut was destroyed by a fire and images of the burnt-down hut dominate the production from the overture all the way through to Act 3. Audi explains in an essay in the programme that he wanted to portray Orlando as a modern-day “anti-hero” torn between love and anger who in his madness ends up setting fire to what he loves.

Handel’s Orlando is an adaptation of a section in Ariosto’s famous Orlando furioso (“Mad Orlando”): in summary, the knight Orlando is infatuated with Queen Angelica but she rejects him because she is in love with Prince Medoro. Orlando is driven to madness in jealousy, and his mad scene in Act 2 is a compelling, tour de force soliloquy – Handel at his best. There are two other characters in the opera: the magician Zoroastre who who presides over the proceedings and tries to convince Orlando to abandon love and to follow Mars (the god of fire – another fire reference), and the sweet-natured shepherdess Dorinda with a crush on Medoro whom she nursed when he was injured.

Musically, there was much to enjoy and praise. Countertenor Begun Mehta gave a commanding performance as Orlando. He has sung the role many times, including at Covent Garden in 2007, and his interpretation showed maturity. He has a focused and powerful tone especially in the middle range (his high register is not as sonorous, but as Orlando is a low-lying role it is perfect for him). His coloratura is secure and agile: his Act 2 aria “Cielo! Se tu il consenti” was sung at a thrilling pace and in the Act 2 mad scene (the whole act becomes his nightmarish fantasy), he sang as if really possessed. He fully deserves the accolade “the Orlando of our time” (Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

In comparison, the other four singers didn’t quite match him in presence or expressivity. Sophie Karthäuser sang with passion and intelligence, but her stage personality as Angelica did not come across. Kristina Hammarström as her lover Medoro also seemed rather unexciting as a character, although her singing was technically impressive. Sunhae Im, who is familiar to us through her Mozart roles in Jacobs’ recordings, was not singing at her best. In Act 1, she sang sweetly with lightness of tone, but her voice did not project to where I was sitting (at the rear of the orchestral stalls) and then in the subsequent acts, she sounded a little edgy. Konstantin Wolff gave a polished, if a little lightweight performance as the enigmatic magician.

The production was conducted by the early music specialist René Jacobs, working with the Ghent-based period instrument group Baroque Orchestra B’Rock (founded in 2005) making their debut at La Monnaie. As always, Jacobs succeeded in creating rich orchestral colours using varied continuo combinations which he favours in this repertoire: the continuo group alone consisted of two harpsichords, organ, two theorbos, guitar, cello and harp. Furthermore he used four double basses (two on each side) to reinforce the bass line and also some percussion instruments not in the score (including a thunder machine) in the magic scenes. B’Rock played eloquently and with warmth, and although the ensemble could have been tighter in the first few scenes, thereafter they sounded livelier and there were some attractive solo contributions from the leader (Rodolfo Richter), violas, horns and recorders.

So, back to the production. I am not against Handel operas in modern settings in principle, but as a long-standing Handelian, I care deeply about the composer’s intentions and the baroque operatic idiom. I think Audi’s symbolic use of fire in this opera is interesting, but Handel’s operas are fundamentally about human relationships and my main problem with this production was that he concentrated so much on Orlando’s fascination with fire and didn’t explore the relationships between the other characters in any depth. Also, by depicting Orlando as a deranged arsonist, we lose the sense of his gradual descent into madness or his recovery of reason at the end. As a result, the opera, while excellently sung and played, lacked overall dramatic tension – with the exception of Orlando’s mad scene.