Haydn: Orlando Paladino / Harnoncourt, Petibon, Gerhaher
There have long been rumors circulating that some of Haydn's operas were genuinely funny, but until this recording I doubted it. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been the only real champion for these works since Antal Dorati, and in this recording he convinces us. From what I can gather, some recitative has been cut, but the plot remains clear; and the music is witty and charming. Composed in 1782, it is called a "dramma eroicomico", a vaguely oxymoronic term, probably meant tongue-in-cheek. The remarkable libretto, originally written for composer Pietro Allessando Guglielmi's opera of the same name 10 years earlier, takes Ariosto's well-known epic, Orlando Furioso, already treated in various tragic forms by Lully, Handel, and Vivaldi, and turns it into a type of farce.
Orlando is the knight nobly torn between love and war, and Alcina is theoretically an evil sorceress. Here, Orlando is so crazy and senseless that the only way the plot can be resolved so that Angelica (who loves having men in love with her) and Medoro (who is so lovesick and scared that he's half comatose) can be happy is for Alcina to give him bad dreams, turn him to stone, lock him in a cave, and finally, drug him with Lethe's waters. Add to this a shepherdess named Eurillia and her father Licone, the pagan King Rodomonte, who is in a constant rage and wants to tear Orlando to shreds, and Orlando's blabbermouth squire, Pasquale, who is always hungry and flirts with Eurilla first for food and then for real, and you get a scenario in which nobody except Orlando takes anything very seriously. Indeed, he deserves to be shut away and have his mind altered. And in the meantime, there are scenes of wrath, jealousy, love, boasting, hunger, and battle--and all of it's for sheer entertainment.
The point, of course, is that the music, when not being simply lovely (much of Angelica's and Medoro's) is genuinely funny (Pasquale's), either within the vocal line or as a result of colorful scoring. It's not Rossini-like funny--broader, more obvious, and almost inviting audience participation--but Haydn is the most nimble of Classical composers and he proves it in this opera.
Every number in the opera is worthy and in the service of the action/comedy/mood, but some are truly special: Medoro's first-act "Parto, ma, oh Dio, non posso", primarily a slow lament, but with wild, confused interruptions; Pasquale's two numbers, the first a catalog of his greatnesses in which he even whistles, the second a piece to show Eurillia how well he sings, trills, and flies up to high notes in falsetto; "Non partir, mia bella face", an aria for Angelica in which her coloratura is a sure sign of inability to cope with what torments her; and Angelica's second-act aria, "Aure chete, verdi allori", that radiates sincerity and then flies off into a coloratura showpiece with the voice in duet with oboes. The recitatives also have real flavor, especially as delivered by the singers here (I believe this set, at least in part, is taken from live concert performances).
The singing is uniformly excellent. The four(!) tenor parts are all well taken by attractive voices, ideally lyrical for this sort of Mozartean, 18th-century bon-bon. Johannes Kalpers' brief stint as Licone is perky; Werner Güra's Medoro is honeyed à la Don Ottavio; Michael Schade's Orlando is sung with big tone and just the right berserk edge; and there's not enough praise for Markus Schäfer's Pasquale--how grand it is that the role is not composed for bass! Christian Gerhaher's Rodomonte is not a big, burly buffo, but rather a baritone paper tiger, filled with menace that goes nowhere, as this character does. Malin Hartelius sings Eurillia with girlish charm, and Elisabeth von Magnus' Alcina is strongly voiced without exaggeration, keeping the comedy/sorcery in perspective.
And in the midst of them all is soprano Patricia Petibon as Angelica, inspired, light as fluff, but with a sharp edge to her tone when necessary. Every word she sings is in character, and she's a master of messa di voce, which she uses wisely. Occasionally her pianissimos are so quiet that they almost disappear, but that's probably just an odd tic of the recording.
Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus, as suggested above, are just the right people for the job, bringing out the character in the music and supporting the singers brilliantly. Tempos are fleet, but there's no sense of rushing; when a moment is supposed to be melodramatic, it is. An old, well-cast (Auger, Ameling, Shirley) recording on Philips under Dorati takes 20 minutes longer, and last time I heard it--10 years ago--it didn't cohere for me. This new version is a must-have. [6/26/2006]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Catalog Number: DHM73370
Label: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn
Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Concentus Musicus
Performer: Christian Gerhaher, Elisabeth von Magnus, Florian Boesch, Johannes Kalpers, Malin Hartelius, Markus Schäfer, Michael Schade, Patricia Petibon, Werner Güra