Some operas are just begging for a strapline: and if Orlando had one, it would surely be “Dorinda’s Dreadful Day”. For although the heroic knight Orlando goes literally mad with passion in the course of this opera, it is the increasingly awful plight of the shepherdess Dorinda which inspires Handel’s best emotional, and even comic, content.

First, Dorinda is plagued by doubts that the handsome African prince Medoro truly loves her (which he doesn’t), but optimistically decides to give him the benefit of the doubt, because she loves him. Then she’s informed of the fact she has been summarily dumped: even worse, it’s Medoro’s new girlfriend Angelica (Orlando’s erstwhile love) who gives her the bad news, along with a rather tactless present (a ring). Angelica and Medoro then together smother the broken-hearted Dorinda with a Smug Couples barrage of useless advice: “Don’t worry; you’ll find someone else; you’re a lovely person; you have so much love to give”, etc, all as infuriating as it is patronising, and Dorinda’s response is understandably bitter, producing a very witty trio. Nevertheless, Dorinda tries to stay friends with everyone; has her hopes briefly raised, then cruelly dashed again, by Medoro; is briefly mistaken for Venus by Orlando, who frightens her with his mad desire, and then frightens her even more by deciding she’s actually some enemy from his past, promptly attacking her. Just when you are thinking that what the poor girl really needs is a hot bath and a large glass of wine, followed urgently by a completely new set of friends, we discover that Orlando has meanwhile destroyed her home in his mad rage, so Dorinda can’t even go back to her beloved cottage. It’s now just a pile of rubble, like the rest of her life. A dreadful day indeed: and Carolyn Sampson plays Dorinda with fine dramatic energy which celebrates the dark joke of her worsening situation. Sampson’s charming confessional, conspiratorial style engages the audience from her first aria: in a performance full of joy and increasingly bravura ornamentation, she genuinely shines with love for Handel’s music, and for Dorinda.

Iestyn Davies’ Orlando showcases a truly exquisite talent: Davies’ countertenor is so gorgeously legato and fluid that it sounds almost unearthly, yet the smoothness is seasoned with heartstopping, ferociously accurate coloratura which received explosive applause from the Barbican audience. Orlando’s vision of Hades, filled with changing musical textures as he gets farther and farther from sanity, makes for an exciting mad scene, with Davies conveying a nicely understated sense of a man lost in his own delusions, seemingly unphased by the fact this role was originally written for the great Senesino. Erin Morley delivers Angelica with stylish spirit, giving her both presence and playfulness as Angelica ruefully admits to the audience that she ought properly to love Orlando as he saved her life, but just can’t resist running off with handsome Medoro; Angelica’s famous “Verdi piante” is especially ravishing, Morley using a sophisticated mix of softness and strength in her soprano to beautiful effect.

Sasha Cooke’s thrillingly dusky mezzo and huge range make for an assured Medoro, well characterised throughout and conjuring believable chemistry with Angelica, though her Italian could be crisper and cleaner at times. Kyle Ketelsen produces sumptuously deep tone and robust accuracy through demanding flurries of notes (but occasionally lacks some power in projection) as hapless philosopher Zoroastro, a man who keeps claiming he’s going to put everything right, but seems to do mainly nothing to help until the very end.

The English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket from the harpsichord, create a magnificent sound, making the most of Handel’s special effects (rushing strings in Dorinda’s aria describing Love as a wind, stormy textures for the obligatory life’s-so-confusing-it’s-like-a-storm aria, which features in many a Baroque opera). And, spread out across the stage, the orchestra are also a pleasing spectacle. But ultimately, this is all the Barbican Baroque performances ever seem to be: a sedentary spectator sport, an almost academically focused exercise in wonderful music making. We were lucky that all our principals were so strong, but without Sampson’s dramatic gifts (in particular) injecting humour and energy, Orlando would have felt very long indeed. For established Handel fans, seeing his operas sung so beautifully is certainly a privilege: but each one is also a dramatic entity, crying out for skilled stagecraft and memorable scenery. The Barbican’s resolutely untheatrical delivery, which seems to be their norm, may please the converted, but will not win Handel new followers.  

Handel’s love lessons from Orlando are hardly inspiring: either give up gracefully and watch your world be destroyed, like Dorinda, or get angry and destroy everything around you without getting what you want, like Orlando himself. But if, as Zoroastro says, “Our minds wander in darkness if we allow ourselves to be led by a blind god”, perhaps love’s better avoided altogether.