Even before Tuesday’s concert performance of Handel’s opera “Orlando” began, it was clear that this would be an unusual night in Ozawa Hall.
Members of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, stopping at Tanglewood on a tour that included Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, were seated in a cluster, backs to the audience. Their cheerfully precise conductor, Nicholas McGegan, would stand in their midst playing one of two harpsichords.
In response to a question shouted from below the stage during tuneup time, the theorbo player, David Tayler, graciously bent down to explain that in Handel’s time the musicians would have been in a pit, facing the stage. Ozawa Hall has no pit, and the singers’ action took place downstage, so the orchestra also faced away from the singers. Whatever. The buoyant playing was going to set off the mouthfuls of highly ornamented vocal writing, and everyone would somehow stay exactly together, with bounce and verve.
Any entertainment approaching four hours that isn’t “Gone With the Wind” risks eventual shrinkage but that said, listeners enthusiastically welcomed this early-music treat, which also had valveless horns whose bells faced the ceiling.
Handel, who was born in 1685, lived more than twice as long as Mozart and Schubert, so he had plenty of time to develop and ripen his art. “Orlando,” from 1733, was one of numerous flowery-lined Italian operas (now being resurrected on opera stages) that kept coming till about 1741, when he composed “Messiah,” followed by a group of other beloved oratorios in English. He never looked back.
The soloists in “Orlando,” which has no chorus or bit parts, were born in Germany, Russia, South Africa and England — not an Italian among them. But they looked comfortable enough singing the language quickly and deftly. Supertitles, as they always can, made all the difference.
This opera has no tenors. The title character, a knight who may have the first male mad scene in opera, was sung by countertenor Clint van der Linde, in a role conceived for a castrato. The plot centers around his falling in love with Queen Angelica (the soprano Dominique Labelle, clad in purple) who loves Medoro, here a trouser role by mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. (They were both immensely capable, and castration is long buried in shameful history, but it makes one wonder how the high range would have sounded with the full resonance of a man’s chest.) Labelle sometimes has an edge to her voice, but she was perfect for this role with its vocal leaps, huge range and lavish coloratura.
Passages in some of the arias forecast sturdy melodic lines of English oratorios to come. A baritone line sounded like “The people who walked in darkness,” from “Messiah” and a big aria for Orlando would someday be used as the backbone of “Let the bright seraphim” from “Samson” or “Let no rash intruder” from “Solomon.”
Love — certainly unrequited love — weakens knights, dissipating their urge to stop chasing women and go fight for glory. Watching over Orlando’s distraction and descent into madness is Zoroaster the magician (baritone Wolf Matthias Friedrich) who, after bringing Orlando’s victims back to life, helps him realize that intrigues are not his strong suit and sets him off on a proper knightly path.
Into this confused, not to say deranged, mix of relationships skips Dorinda, a shepherdess or maybe a maid, but clearly someone from the lower classes. (She wears an unflattering green shirt dress with white apron and a pink hair bow). She loves Medoro also but he deserts her for the queen.
Dorinda is the only sane, all-mortal character, and soprano Yulia Van Doren dived into the role with elegant vocal technique and sly humor, eventually accepting that she is in the wrong crowd, and that love is OK up to a point.
McGegan, in his 25th year of directing this 30-year-old ensemble, has lost none of his joyous demeanor. He uses no baton because he needs his hands to play, but his arm swung unerringly for cues and beat. Is everybody happy? Oh, yes.