Orlando: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Ricci: Angelica and Medoro

★★★½

(La Nuova Musica with David Bates at St John’s Smith Square, 1 February 2018)

I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.

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Orfeo: Claudio Monteverdi (1607)

★★★★

(Royal Opera House in collaboration with the Roundhouse, January 2014)

In 1607 Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, came up with a rather original way to celebrate Carnival at his court. It was inspired by something he’d seen in Florence a few years earlier in 1600, when he’d been a guest at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France. He’d been deeply impressed by the main entertainment offered at the festivities: a new kind of play, set to music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (who’d already produced a similar work called Dafne in 1597).

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Elena: Francesco Cavalli (1659)

Cavalli: Elena

(Aix-en-Provence, 2013, with Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea)

How do I begin to describe Elena? It definitely isn’t your average opera. Imagine a Baroque cross-dressing operatic romantic comedy, with importunate lovers (plenty), pirates (sort of) and bears (briefly). How can you refuse something so gloriously over-the-top? Performed with gusto by a brilliant young cast, many of whom have since made names for themselves all over Europe, this charming, rambunctious, occasionally downright daft production from the Aix Festival is in a genre all by itself.

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