Orlando furioso (concert performance) - Barbican, 27 March 2011
Nurtured by recently-departed general manager Dominique Meyer (now installed at the rather grander Vienna State Opera), baroque opera has flourished in recent years at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Earlier this month, a Pierre Audi production of Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso premiered there to acclaim. Its bedrock was Jean-Christophe Spinosi's Ensemble Matheus and most of the cast he first brought together for his benchmark 2005 recording and later toured to the Edinburgh Festival and beyond.
The opera is now doing the European rounds in concert version with most of the Paris cast intact. It's unfortunate Jennifer Larmore and Romina Basso were too ill to make the Barbican trip. Their replacements Franziska Gottwald and Daniela Pini were fine singers but, understandably, tied to their scores and physically tentative. Otherwise we might have had more of a semi-staged performance - always a help when there are over three hours of knotty plotting and samey arias to get through.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux managed to liven things up all by herself though. She's one of those performers who seem able to take the temperature of a room and raise or lower it at will. Armoured in a bronze corset and lush black fur tippet, her ample frame quievering, she gave a decisive portrayal of the great warrior Orlando. For her final mad scenes, she dropped the fur, mussed up her hair and staggered around raving - all without losing vocal focus. The florid ornamentation she left to others. Her refined contralto was strictly no frills, simple and rugged.
Philippe Jaroussky, quietly and tastefully suited, couldn't make quite the same physical impact. It's the honeyed tone of his voice that grabs all the attention. His Sol da te (video below), with its haunting flute accompaniment, was exquisite, the high point of the evening.
The sorceress Alcina and the visiting princess Angelica are, dramatically at least, the central roles in the complicated story. Franziska Gottwald didn't really capture Alcina's scheming character or her obsessive passions with quite the same flair Jennifer Larmore might have managed. And it has to be said she skipped handfuls of notes in the fiddly coloratura (handicapped by Spinosi's breakneck tempos). Given her last-minute casting, she didn't do a bad job though, and I could imagine her dark mezzo being displayed to better effect in a different and fully-rehearsed role.
Veronica Cangemi's Angelica was as sweet and sparkly as her silver frock, if rather too fussily ornamented. Her breathy pianissimo stylings didn't really work in the dry Barbican acoustic - even though I was near the stage I had to strain to hear her - but at least her nuanced approach wrenched some semblance of character from the music.
Daniela Pini (Medoro), Christian Senn (Astolfo) and Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante) all filled their roles well too - there really wasn't a weak link.
Spinosi's interpretation has lost some of its rough edges over the years, but none of its vigour and freshness. A beautifully detailed four-player continuo painted the winds and the waves of the recitative in pictorial colour, and the violin-weighted full band made a rounder, warmer sound than the emaciated squeaking of so many period ensembles. An all-round success.