Boston Early Music Festival: Reality and Illusion – A Subtle and Triumphant Orlando generoso

Nélida Nassar 06.12.2019

Orlando generoso by Agostino Steffani provided the triumphant opening of the 20th Boston Early Music Festival, a much-awaited biannual concert extravaganza (with a major exhibition) lasting for one glorious week. Steffani, a composer, diplomat and priest, was a musician of exceptional talent and originality, revered in his time – by the young Handel among many others – but unfortunately little heard today, at least until recently, when Cecilia Bartoli sang some of his repertoire. He was the most important composer ever appointed by the Duchy of Hanover, whose ruling family embarked, at the end of the 17th century, on a cultural offensive with the objective of having Duke Ernst August become a prince elector. To this end, the duchy obtained the services of Steffani. This turned out to be a brilliant choice; in fact, his works are still performed to this day in the majestic gardens of Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband, the current Ernst August of Hanover. Steffani is close to the BEMF’s heart; Niobe, regina di Tebe, the last of his Munich operas, was performed and recorded at its 2011 festival.

Orlando generoso, Steffani’s fourth opera, was first performed in 1691 with Orlando’s role is written for a castrato, but the BEMF has adapted it for a tenor. Not for the first time, as it was also sung by a tenor in a performance in German translation at the Hamburg opera in 1696, the libretto for which has been lost. The story describes the conflict between personal emotions and the ruthless power politics so typical of the times. The valiant crusader Orlando, a fearless and invincible knight, is driven mad by his infatuation with the princess Angelica, as happens to him in many 17th and 18th century operas. Here, though, he comes to his senses just in time to assure the two pairs of lovers, Medoro and Angelika, and Ruggiero and Bradamante, of eternal bliss without fear of his Fury  (the latter couple is a nod to the d’Este family who were his patrons).

The Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, sat in two rows, with the first and second violins facing each other and the sizable continuo group, led by Michael Sponseller, harpsichord and the two musical directors Paul O’Dette, theorbo and Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar, on the right. Bassoons, dulcet woodwinds, drums, keyboards, oboes, percussion, bells, a tambourine, a ratchet, recorders, strummed instruments, a thunder sheet and viola da gamba provided additional instrumental color in a number of arias. The orchestra expressed the themes of love and glory with great conviction and consistently brought out the virtuosic element of the music. The score offers supple melody, elegant counterpoint and perfect formal balance throughout and may be compared (not unfavorably) with the compositions of Corelli and Stradella. Filled with tunes of delicate nuance, it brilliantly combines Italian virtuosity and spontaneity with French elegance and refinement, creating a characteristic tone well suited the dramatic action. The libretto by Ortensio Mauro, based on Ludovico Ariosto’s monumental epic poem Orlando furioso, wanders further from that author’s narrative than most of the other operas derived from it, with the scene suddenly shifting from France to Cathay (i.e. China) but with no discernible effect on the style of the music. The story features the usual marvels of wizardry and makes much of mistaken identities. 

The libretto by Ortensio Mauro, based on Ludovico Ariosto’s monumental epic poem Orlando furioso, wanders further from that author’s narrative than most of the other operas derived from it, with the scene suddenly shifting from France to Cathay (i.e. China) but with no discernible effect on the style of the music. The story features the usual marvels of wizardry and makes much of mistaken identities. 

The curtain opens on a valley in the Pyrenees, topped by the enchanted castle of the sorcerer Atlante, a desolate cavern at its base. The warrior maiden, Bradamante (soprano Emöke Baráth) has bound the thief Brunello (tenor Zachary Wilder) and tied him to a tree after wresting from him the ring that serves as her charm against magic. Atlante (baritone Jesse Blumberg) has imprisoned her lover Ruggiero (countertenor Christopher Lowrey) and she is determined to free him. Through the machinations of the sorcerer Atlante and his henchman Brunello the lovers are separated: Ruggiero is transported to China, where he encounters princess Angelica (soprano Amanda Forsythe), who is herself searching for her love, the missing Medoro (countertenor Kacper Szelążek). Thanks to the intervention of the sorceress Melissa (lyric soprano Teresa Wakim), Bradamante turns up in Asia, too, and, when she sees Ruggiero with Angelica, immediately suspects the worst. Orlando (Aaron Sheehan) himself is enamored of Angelica, though she doesn’t return his feelings. Rather, having fallen in love with Medoro, Angelica wants nothing more than to be reunited with him. But, when she denies her identity to Orlando and her father, King Galafro (countertenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetti), more complications ensue. Orlando’s fate is the most drastic. While the other characters suffer from pangs of jealousy and desire for revenge, Orlando undergoes a complete psychological and emotional breakdown, ultimately ending up in prison. The story offers telling insights into some of the characters, especially the hero Orlando in his progression through love, madness, despair and renunciation. There is nothing comical, however, in either the libretto or in the music. They depict a hallucinatory passion and obsession, offering a “psychological” portrayal that plumbs, with total seriousness, the madness of the iconic hero Orlando.

In this, his first encounter with Ariosto for the stage, set director Gilbert Blin displays a remarkable gift for eliciting performances of great emotional sincerity from the entire cast. He excels at helping the soloists bring out the salient elements of the score’s many concise but characterful arias and duets, which are interspersed with recitative, where much of the action and character development takes place and where any hint of monotony is avoided by frequent merging into arioso passages. Soon after the start of the opera comes the first of many duets; and before we know it, we find ourselves drawn into the exquisite world created by these, Steffani’s specialty, as in “Inquieto mio cor,” in which graceful melodic lines and delicious suspensions are interwoven in a way equaled by few other composers.

The Bradamante of soprano Emőke Baráth deserves only praise. Her graceful voice with its supple coloratura is remarkable in terms of both style and technique. She seduces by the density of her powerful mezzo voice. Like several of the other singers, she is a refreshing addition to BEMF’s roster of soloists. Her opening aria “Un giusto ardir” is brightly articulated; the burning urgency of “Inquieta m’aggiro” with its hammering Iberian accompaniment is conveyed with admirable directness; and the role’s bravura moments in “Come Vipera” in Act 3 is characterized by an ideal combination of robustness and finesse. The dynamic nuances that the artist is able to achieve are commendable. 

Playing opposite her, Amanda Forsythe is not overshadowed. She offers a classy Angelica, bringing out the character’s fragility with great sensitivity. Whether her character is lamenting the disappearance of Medoro, resisting the advances of her father – who doesn’t recognize Angelica as his own daughter – or celebrating her reunification with her beloved, Forsythe sings with passion, excellent diction, and a warm, pure voice. Angelica has something Mozartian about her, and her entrance aria seems to evoke Cherubino’s “No so piu cosa faccio” but then comes the great moment of her loss of Medoro. 

In his portrayal of the latter, Kacper Szelążek offers pianissimi which are as exquisite as they are daring. His ethereal trills makes one forget the complicated plot and revel in the sheer joyfulness of the singing. Christopher Lowrey, as the ardent Ruggiero, excels in the upper register. Both countertenors are as dramatically persuasive as they are vocally skillful in these not-so-easy parts. 

Tenor Aaron Sheehan dives deep into the inner landscape of a man whose fury is that of a person who has been deprived of all his strength, as he himself observes. The hero finds himself stymied, engulfed in the pangs of a heartache that ultimately thrusts him into madness. Sheehan gives a remarkable performance in this demanding role, summoning the vocal pyrotechnics needed to convey Orlando’s delirium and impotence. His singing is impeccable throughout, from the opening aria “In quest’alma” followed by “La mia bella, ò finga ò nò” to “Miserie fortunate” in Act 3. Most strikingly, the highs resonate brilliantly and his voice is pure over most of its range, both nuanced and poignant.  

As King Galafro, Flavio Ferri-Benedetti performs technically at a very high level. His nuanced high-pitched sounds and accentuated exclamations successfully serve the dramatic purpose. His “Che tragiche scene” in Act 3 is beautifully sung as he slides effortlessly in falsetto even on the highest notes.

Jesse Blumberg lends Atlante a solid baritone voice, supple and versatile in “Che bella preda” in Act 2 and in “Mal concertate moli” in Act 3. In the cameo roles, Zachary Wilder sings alluringly as the playful jester Brunello, and Teresa Wakim brings sparklingly pure tones and perfect intonation to Melissa.

The magical dimension of the opera is brought to the fore by Gilbert Blin’s skillful staging, in which a variety of minimalistic  yet visually powerful interventions energized the stage at all times. The text is placed in cartouches above the stage; a series of mobile settings punctuate the opera’s many scenes; a hippogriff (a cross between a horse and an eagle) and a floating cloud accent the plot. All this is made possible by the clever stage machinery supplied by ZFX, Inc. Most important, Blin keeps the focus on the true core of the plot: the ambivalence of love, which is capable of inspiring self-denial but can lead to emotional devastation through incontrollable jealousy. Here, nothing is left to chance: everything is rigorously thought out and serves the legibility of the drama. One remarkable example is the poetic moment when a luminous cross is projected on Orlando as he falls to the floor singing “Miserie fortunate.” One can imagine that the Catholic composer and librettist would have welcomed this religious symbolism.

The costumes are designed by Anna Watkins, and from King Galafro’s golden robe à la chinoise and Brunello’s Comedia del arte Arlequino or Pierrot’s costume to the Little Bo Peep dress and her sheep for Angelica they form, in their ensemble, a lush universe of color, at once elegant, comic and festive. Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière’s choreography and Melinda Sullivan’s dance direction brought a lovely 17th century French spirit to the production. The insertion of dancing, which Steffani himself foresaw, is never gratuitous or simply decorative; it makes dramatic sense, and its imagery both suits the action and questions it, although it should perhaps have been somewhat shorter.

In conclusion, Orlando generoso is a rare treat for lovers of baroque opera and of early music in general. At first sight, it would be easy to dismiss the plot as one more instance of the genre’s frivolity, involving, as it does, pairs of lovers of varying constancy, mistaken identities, rough justice and wrongful imprisonment, not to mention miraculous last-minute conversions to the virtues of repentance, generosity and forgiveness. Yet, the lack of grandeur of the fragile hero Orlando, who says he prefers love to glory, and the obvious commitment of all the artists to give flesh and dynamism to the score, together yield a lasting emotional impact. The team of soloists, dancers and musicians of the Boston Early Music Festival give this enchanting, rarely performed spectacle the glossy treatment it requires and deserves, and this superbly polished production will definitely win it many new fans. Not to be missed!
Repeat performances are scheduled for June 14th at 7.00 pm and June 16th at 3:30 pm. 

Boston Early Music Festival Opera in three Acts
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Robert Mealy, Concertmaster
Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director
Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, Choreographer
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Gilbert Blin, Set Designer
Kelly Martin, Lighting Designer
Ellen Hargis, Assistant Stage Director
Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer

Vocal Cast
Aaron Sheehan, Orlando
Amanda Forsythe, Angelica
Emőke Baráth, Bradamante
Christopher Lowrey, Ruggiero
Kacper Szelążek, Medoro
Jesse Blumberg, Atlante
Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, Galafro
Zachary Wilder, Brunello
Teresa Wakim, Melissa

BEMF Dance Company
Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director
Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, Choreographer and Dancer
Stéphanie Brochard Pierre-François Dollé, Guest Dancers
Julian Donahue, Olsi Gjeci, Caitlin Klinger, Alexis Silver Andrew Trego

Kathy Wittman