The recent revival of Jetske Mijnssen’s production of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino in Zurich attracted a good-sized audience. Rarely performed, the opera belongs to the “heroically comical” genre, and contains the heartbreak, confusion, silliness and outright buffoonery that audiences regularly flocked to see and hear at the end of the 18th century. What seems self-evident is not. Who loves, does not. What’s torturous will heal. Such anomalies still easily cut the mustard today.

Fast forwarding some 240 years, the novelty of Ben Baur’s stage design is that all three acts transpire in the same large, old-fashioned bar-and-waiting room, an area much like those still found in large European train stations. Here, the bar’s slender iron pillars support its high, dark ceiling; up over its doors, an oversized banner reads, “Tonight’s Folly is Tomorrow’s Regret.” One hopes that doesn’t apply to this production. 

For admittedly, Orlando Paladino is unusual fare. Its story is secondary. Much of it makes little sense. It does feature an entertaining crew of colourful, if somewhat hackneyed, characters. Among them, the vagrant Orlando goes crazy when he discovers his beloved Angelica is devoted to another man, Medoro. Yet even in the first scene, the two lovers argue heftily, lose their tempers and reunite with a kiss. That sequence, which is run through twice in Act 1, sets the stage for the on-again, off-again undercurrent of duplicity that carries this entire production. 

Clever too, is that Act 2 mirrors the very stage directions we’d seen in Act 1. Yet now, costumes switch from blues and reds to largely green, and soft lighting blankets the stage with the colour of frozen peas. The same furniture arrangements and fixtures have moved from right to left. And starting with Orlando, whose mirror image confronted him with a revolver at the end of Act 1, each of the principals gets a “double”. They lurch between heated squabbles and limp resolutions, between pompousness and dashed pride, between sanity and destructive mania in one great hullaballoo.

The story itself − as convoluted as any in opera – is more or less a front for vocal escapades and confections. Soprano Jane Archibald excelled as Angelica, bringing sterling clarity to her demanding vocal role. As Medoro, Mauro Peter had to sing around his partner’s perpetual changes of mood, but called up that host of reactions with vigour and conviction. With its simple harmonies, the lovers’ sweet aria, “May Cupid preserve this fidelity” in Act 2, was a true highlight of the evening.

As Orlando, Michael Spyres also gave a stellar performance. Jealous to see Angelica with Medoro, he sang of “serpents, fire and tortures”, making the hair stand up on your neck. Similarly, by ending the opera with a soothing lyric that brings “everything conducive to rest”, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. 

Further, as the thuggish Rodomonte − muscular as a bear, and costumed something like a modern Neanderthal − Ruben Drole shared his tremendously sonorous bass. For humour, his long stringy hair was only outdone by the generous, sewn-in loincloth/diaper that graced his trousers’ crotch and bottom. The “courageous fellow” he contends to be is, however, easily seduced by the flippant barmaid, Eurilla, (Mélissa Petit) before she takes up with the sexy young Pasquale (Juan Sancho). Both gave a solid vocal performance in those roles. Finally, pulling the strings in the background, is the yoga-practicing fairy-godmother/sorceress Alcina, (Anna Goryachova), who ultimately secures the opera’s happy ending. While her voice carried well, I found it quite strident, and she fell just short on two of three of her highest notes. Martin Zysset was the flamboyant bartender, Licone, and Ildo Song sang a resonant bass as the cameo Charon; that Song will be joining the house ensemble from next season is good news indeed.

Under Riccardo Minasi’s energetic baton, the Musikkollegium Winterthur played with gusto and precision, and at curtain, concertmaster, solo cello, lute and cembalo also took well-deserved bows. While Haydn’s music was undeniably made effervescent and light-filled by their tight orchestration, the opera’s bent on farce was a little too exaggerated for my taste. In one scene, for example, the characters barricade the door from the deranged Orlando with stacked tables and chairs. Logical, indeed, but the unrelenting, arguably purposeless action on stage around that effort was scattered and exaggerated, and neglected a rule of good acting: to move only when there is a reason to do so. In short, scampering around like a warren of rabbits not only distracted from the music, it also did little to heighten the sense of foreboding.