Extravaganza! Baroque Opera As A Vocal Spectacle

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Steffani’s ‘Orlando generoso,’ with Aaron Sheehan in the title role, at Boston Early Music Festival. (Kathy Wittman photos)
By Keith Powers

BOSTON – Since 1981, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival has been one of the most anticipated events on the calendar, a whirlwind of concerts and presentations mixed in with a trade show – all of it pivoting around the centerpiece, a fully staged Baroque opera.

The 2019 festival features Agostino Steffani’s Orlando generoso, first presented in 1691. The libretto (Ortensio Mauro), crafted from Ariosto’s then-recent epic Orlando furioso, reworks the myth, focusing on the period of Orlando’s love-induced folly, not his battle exploits. As a musical and visual showcase, Orlando generoso worked brilliantly on the Cutler Majestic Theatre stage at Emerson College. Its dramatic values worked less well.

At the first performance June 9, the cast sang with distinction from the first note to the very-much-later last note. Well-developed roles for almost a dozen singers, an endless stream of engaging recitatives and arias, and robust support from the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra led by Robert Mealy made a challenging dramatic presentation into a musical extravaganza.

The elaborate Italian Baroque extravaganza featured well-developed roles for almost a dozen singers.

Steffani, who was born near Venice in 1654, also worked in the French idiom and was eventually posted to Germany. His absorption of each of those diverse styles – a more pronounced distinction in 17th-century Europe – led to his rich and varied musical textures. Nearly four hours long onstage, Orlando generoso offers an unceasing dose of gorgeous arias, inventive recitatives, and instrumental accompaniment of a high order. Singers without facile, well-supported coloratura were not asked to apply.

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Orlando generoso might best be titled “Orlando lacrimoso.” Misery is the subtext of every aria. Set in imaginary Cathay (China), Atlante (and other wizards) interfere with the planned marriage of princess Bradamante and the noble Ruggiero. When a runaway griffon carries Ruggiero off, he displays his chivalry to another princess, Angelica, who is hiding her surreptitious marriage to a simple soldier. Eventually, Orlando, driven mad with unrequited love for Angelica himself, arrives and further complicates the mating pattern. Then Angelica’s own father, the king of Cathay, falls in love with her (Angelica’s in disguise, but it’s still creepy).

Aaron Sheehan as Orlando, who suffers from madness that infects all relationships.

Orlando’s madness infects all the relationships. Everyone has lost a love, is unhappy in love, is hiding from their love, or fleeing their love. Laments fill the air, broken only with comic relief from wizards and their tricks—which occasionally worked as planned. And occasionally didn’t. The music made the missteps inconsequential.

Shedding vivid light on Steffani’s rich score, a large cast brought the interwoven love disasters to life – with tenor Aaron Sheehan in the title role and the sopranos Emöke Baráth as Bradamante and Amanda Forsythe as Angelica. Countertenors took three key roles: Christopher Lowrey as Ruggiero, Kacper Szelazek as the soldier Medoro and Flavio Ferri-Benedetti as King Galafro.  Tenor Zachary Wilder sang Brunello, a wizard, and baritone Jesse Blumberg played the magician Atlante. Mealy and the festival orchestra, jam-packed into a tight oval in pit, may not have been able to move, but they played magnificently.

Soprano Emőke Baráth as Bradamante, a princess targeted by evil wizardry. Her story dominates the first act.

Superior singing was the norm. Baráth dominated the first act – gorgeous tone, easy power (needed frequently) for her instrument, and a swashbuckling appearance. The Grammy-winning Sheehan may have had the first act off (in an awkward dramatic move, our Orlando is the last character to appear onstage), but it was worth waiting to hear his steady tone, coupled with the dexterity to achieve Steffani’s vocal acrobatics.

All three countertenors dazzled. Forsythe sang with accustomed beauty. Blumberg was a force as the magician Atlante. Mauro’s libretto may have been one woeful tale, but Steffani’s word-painting made the most of every nuance. Recitatives were hardly formulaic; florid music interrupted the narrative flow to dwell on a feeling. Arias ranged from simple songs to more complex da capo structures – two parts, the first repeated with ornamentation – abetted by substantial orchestral involvement, not just continuo. If the plot clangs from one miserable misadventure to the next, with all the gorgeous music, the viewer happily gives up on keeping track of who is tricking or betraying or avoiding whom.

Among three countertenors, Flavio Ferri-Benedetti as King Galafro.

Mauro’s libretto may have been one woeful tale, but Steffani’s word-painting made the most of every nuance. Recitatives were hardly formulaic; florid music would interrupt the narrative flow to dwell on a feeling. Arias ranged from simple songs to more complex da capo structures – two parts, the first repeated – with substantial orchestral involvement, not just continuo. The plot clangs from one miserable misadventure to the next, but with all the gorgeous music, viewers happily give up on keeping track of who is tricking or betraying or avoiding whom.

So what if the props were hokey. A griffon, meant to carry away one of the lamenting lovers, failed to arrive on time. A very game Bradamante and Brunello held frozen positions for minutes, eventually breaking character and ad libbing a bit. Finally, our griffon descended. Since the magic and wizardry were mainly comic tropes throughout, the gaffe sort of felt like part of the plan.

The directorial team included Mealy, Gilbert Blin, Melinda Sullivan, Paul O’Dette, and Stephen Stubbs, longtime festival collaborators. Sets (Blin with Kate A. Noll) shifted from forest to dwelling to city square, all of it funneled into the center of the stage. This boxed-in playing area seemed unimaginative, especially when juxtaposed with the lavishly conceived costumes (Anna Watkins) and the fantastic dancing (Sullivan, with Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière). The well-conceived choreography showed up subtly in great blocking, but more interestingly in the entr’acte ballet interludes, beautifully realized by the festival dance company. They could have used more room to explore.

Dance director Melinda Sullivan and choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière worked wonders in a tiny space.

The festival, featuring more performances of Orlando generoso, continues through June 16. Concerts include Kristian Bezuidenhout directing the Dunedin Consort in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mealy leading the festival orchestra in theatrical music of Rameau, and appearances by Sequentia, Doulce Mémoire, Solamente Naturali, the Boston Camerata and ACRONYM Ensemble. A performance of “Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain” – a pastiche of semi-staged works by Charpentier, Lully, and Lalande – will also tour later this month to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in western Massachusetts and to New York’s Caramoor Center. For more information visit www.bemf.org or call 617-661-1812.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com