Act I Orlando
By Rosa Manion, Rosemary Joshua, Hilary Summers
Today’s Banger is a little unusual. Traditionally, the closing aria of Act I was reserved for a big virtuoso set-piece by one of the star singers Handel had engaged. Here, the act closes with a trio. Quite a risky proposition, from a commercial point of view. Despite writing duets, trios and the occasional quartet, of the same high quality as his solo arias, Handel was taking a chance here; these were not at all popular with the audiences of the day. Blending multiple voices in close harmony pretty much eliminated the space and freedom for the singers to engage in improvisatory fireworks, and that was exactly what the punters paid to see.
Orlando was one of three operas Handel wrote with the libretti based on the 1532 epic poem, Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto (the others being Alcina and Ariodante). Here, the trio characters are the shepherdess Dorinda, Angelica, Queen of Cathay, and Medoro, an African Prince and beloved of Angelica. What’s particularly beautiful are the ravishing textures produced by combing two very different sopranos and a contralto voice. Rosemary Joshua, very partial to a wide and intrusive vibrato, is forced to reign it in here, to maintain balance of ensemble, and is all the better for it. Cracking stuff.
Orlando has fared reasonably well in terms of recordings and the listener has choices which pretty much cover all tastes. This, with Patricia Bardon as Orlando, under William Christie and Les Arts Florrisants, and no countertenors anywhere is obviously my preference. But fans of males singers have two excellent, but very different, options. Firstly, there’s Bejun Mehta in the lead role under Rene Jacobs on Archiv. But if Jacobs’s notoriously interventionist way with Handel’s lines is not to your taste, then James Bowman (with Arlene Auger and Emma Kirkby, no less!) under the much more conservative Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music on Decca should tick all your boxes.