MADRID — As a first-time visitor to Madrid’s Teatro Real, I found it lived up to its splendid reputation as an innovative, important company. The handsome structure, opened in 1850, was closed for decades until 1997 saw a renovation completed. Since then, it has arguably surpassed Barcelona’s legendary Gran Teatre de Liceu as Spain’s premier showplace for opera. Baroque, mainstream, and contemporary works make for a vibrant mix with recitals, dance events, and touring ensembles.
In a sign of the company’s thoughtful programming, the bill for November featured two contrasting works by Haydn and Handel based on Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, both new to the theater. This wide-ranging, magic- and love-fueled early 16th century epic poem could supply an entire season or two, with treatments by, among many others, Francesca Caccini (her 1625 version arriving in Madrid in June), Vivaldi, Lully, Rameau, Hasse, Méhul, Mayr, and Ambroise Thomas.
In the Nov. 1 concert reading of the Haydn, conductor Giovanni Antonini and his Il Giardino Armonico provided a lovely instrumental framework for an accomplished cast. Alasdair Kent delivered the madness-conveying accompagnato recitatives of the obsessed Orlando incisively, though in cantabile music his well-trained, high-lying tenor sounded stylistically more attuned to bel canto repertoire. Rising Baroque star soprano Emőke Baráth proved a spirited, often vocally dazzling Angelica. Canadian lyric tenor Josh Lovell’s fluent, confidently voiced Medoro confirmed his liquid tone and technical prowess. One wished stylish, focused soprano Núria Rial’s helpful sorceress Alcina had more to sing. The sole native Italian speaker, Renato Dolcini, showed sharp characterization skills and an excellent, mellow bass-baritone with agility as the hot-headed warrior king Rodomante and the ferryman Caronte (Charon). As the rustics, Polish singers Krystian Adam (Licone /Pasquale) and Natalia Rubis (Eurilla) made up in liveliness and charm — and in the tenor’s case, refined artistry — what they lacked in vocal glamour. Overall, a very pleasant rendition of a worthy if non-incendiary work.
Haydn’s largely comic Orlando paladino (1782) must have delighted his Eszterháza patrons and their guests, for it is full of gracefully accompanied, well-wrought, beautiful melodies. But like all of his operas, it lacks both a sense of dramatic inevitability and — apart from broad traits connoting, say “rustic servant” or “noble lover” — the psychological specificity of character that Handel’s Orlando (1733) serves up so compellingly. The arias and ensembles — in some ways the score’s strongest pieces — emerge generic. The earthy servants sound like Despina or Leporello. The high-born characters — with the exception of the unmoored title hero — have dignified, sonorous numbers with obbligato, often followed by up-tempo sections requiring (particularly from Angelica and Medoro, the couple arousing the spurned Orlando’s jealous wrath) considerable virtuosity.
On Nov. 7, the Teatro Real hosted a stop on Argentine star countertenor Franco Fagioli’s tour in support of his new Mozart album Anime immortali. Possessing a well-constructed, nonpareil instrument of theatrical excitement, Fagioli undertakes music Mozart wrote specifically for castrati, sporting the range and technical skills to do it justice. Unfortunately, where the Pentatone release pairs Fagioli with the fine Kammerorchester Basel, here he worked with the Capella Cracoviensis. Their earnest, disappointing playing under Jan Tomasz Adamus weakened the concert; interspersing movements from Schubert’s Fifth Symphony — composed in 1816, well after the age of the star castrato that Fagioli’s project concerns — puzzled me.
In his initial offerings of Mozart, Ramiro’s “Se l’augellin sen fugge” from La finta giardiniera (1775) and Cecilio’s “Ah se a morir” from Lucio Silla (1772), Fagioli was impressive vocally but way too tied to his music stand to be communicative. Much more nuanced and moving were Sesto’s two magnificent arias from La clemenza di Tito, phrased with imagination and showing immaculate coloratura.
In “Parto, parto” he partnered with spectacularly articulate clarinetist Alvaro Iborra Jimenez, whose playing was a total delight. We’re so used to hearing “Exsultate, jubilate” tackled by bright-voiced sopranos that we forget Mozart wrote the motet for the same castrato — Venanzio Rauzzini — who originated Cecilio. Fagioli’s astonishingly fluent rendition roused the audience’s approval, winning two encores: a scarily ornate aria from the largely self-plagiarized cantata Davide penitente (1785) and a relaxed if not exactly characterful “Voi, che sapete.”
Two other world-class countertenors appeared the following day in the Handel Orlando. With a gesture toward Peter Sellars’ 1981 American Repertory Theater Orlando, director Claus Guth transposed the action to Florida; here the eponymous hero is no astronaut but a Vietnam vet with PTSD, living in a drab, blockish, balconied apartment building. The chronology (the war ended in 1975) doesn’t line up with the more recent clothes, technology, and popular culture iconography the production team evoked, but no matter. Guth’s other inspirations clearly included obsessed Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (for Christophe Dumaux’s deranged Orlando) and Uma Thurman’s black-wigged Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction (for Anna Prohaska’s volatile, sensuous Angelica, far from the usual well-behaved princess).
Medoro found Anthony Roth Costanzo gamely channeling a working-class Lothario, fending off the advances of Giulia Semenzato’s food truck owner Dorinda. The very fine singing actor Florian Boesch played two versions of the philosopher Zoroastro — a boozy washout and an uptight parole officer — whom we saw gradually merge. Not everything clicked, and some Regie clichés (video screen, petal drop, disbelief in the work’s lieto fine) surfaced, but overall it held one’s rapt attention.
Experienced Handelian Ivor Bolton led an admirably prepared orchestra through a propulsive account of an unusually complete score, with only some recitative trimmed. For my taste, he tolerated a few too many overreaching cadenzas, particularly from the extremely mannered and sometimes vocally iffy Prohaska. The athletic Dumaux was brave and mesmerizing dramatically, using his somewhat buzzy but very well trained instrument with linguistic and musical sensitivity in this challenging assignment. Costanzo’s lighter voice drew legato arcs in a clearly post-coital “Verdi allori,” one of Handel’s great inspirations. This — along with the extremely natural, totally idiomatic Semenzato in “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti” — proved the evening’s vocal highlights, amid much wonderful singing.
Finally, the knowledgeable if sometimes overemphatic Łukasz Borowicz led a stirring concert version of Poland’s “national opera,” Halka (1858 in its final iteration) by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872). The work combines a classic Romantic nobleman-deserts-commoner plot with Polish folk motifs and — as in Smetana’s roughly coeval Bartered Bride — discrete dance segments, the Real orchestra and chorus rose to the unfamiliar challenges magnificently. American soprano Corinne Winters, now a major player in Europe, proved compellingly intense and vocally haunting as the put-upon Halka. After warming up, Piotr Beczala sang with passion and ringing high notes in a part (Jontek, her friend but spurned suitor) he’s done for decades. Though a resourceful, impactful singing actor, the megaphone-voiced Tomasz Konieczny no longer has the correct vocal format (middle-period Verdi baritone, say, Quinn Kelsey) for the betraying Janusz. Most striking among the capable others was even-toned bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as the Other Woman’s powerful father, Stolnik. An exciting end to a stimulating week.