Orlando Paladino is one of the operas Haydn wrote for the small opera house at the Esterháza Palace. It has been rarely performed and some might remember it as one of Elly Ameling’s rare operatic recording, conducted by Antal Dorati in his all-stars series for Phillips. It has also recently caught the attention of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who released a recording made live in Graz with some favourite singers in European stages: Patricia Petibon, Malin Hartelius, Werner Güra, Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher.
As much as Harnoncourt, conductor René Jacobs made his own edition for his performances at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, involving basically the trimming of recitatives and the inclusion of one showpiece aria from Haydn’s Il mondo della Luna for the role of Alcina. As usual, Jacobs has a fancy for the decoration of repeats, what is less bothersome in an unfamiliar opera, for very active continuo (here beside a fortepiano, an alternating harpsichord plus a lute) and for writing over the composer’s work (the inclusion of loud percussion in the Eurilla/Pasquale duet Quel tuo visetto amabile and the inclusion of a part for Eurilla in Pasquale’s “catalogue” aria). But one would forgive Jacobs anything – his conducting was at one vital and spontaneous. Those used to Harnoncourt’s recording were certainly surprised by the flowing yet clear and forward-moving approach. With the help of the polished and animated playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester, ensembles were always transparent and the lyric moments, given all the time they needed, were particularly touching.
Even in such an excellent cast, one would have no doubt that Marlis Petersen’s is the prima donna role. Her golden-toned lyric soprano is extremely ductile and flexible – the purity of line, accurate divisions, floating pianissimi and dramatic imagination are admirable – and, considering the light vocal quality, particularly penetrating. Also properly cast in the soubrette role, Sunhae Im not only sung with charm and instrumental poise, but also showed real talent for comedy. It is a voice that blossoms a bit high in the soprano range, though, and sometimes she disappears in her first octave. Although Haydn could not have said that Alcina is a mezzo soprano role, the notes speak for themselves. It is extremely gracious of Alexandrina Pendatchanska to take such a secondary role, but once again her wide spectrum of abilities did not build into a coherent performance. The role sits uncomfortably in her soprano – the lower end was dealt with with a somewhat overblown chest voice that did not seamlessly connect to a recessed middle register and there was little opportunity for her forceful high register. She furiously decorated her part and I cannot see any other reason for her florid insertion aria in the somewhat pointless act III than Jacobs’s friendship with her. In any case, she seized the opportunity to offer a dazzling coloratura display.
Magnus Staveland’s tenor lacks projection above the passaggio, but it is an extremely pleasant voice, rich-toned and flexible, what is essential for the role of the handsome Medoro (as clearly shown in the libretto, there is not really much beyond looks in Medoro). Tom Randle performs the “furious” aspects of Orlando to perfection, especially in a production that requires from him destroying sets with an axe à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His tenor has a darker and more heroic colour than, for example, Michael Schade’s in Harnoncourt’s recording, but he lacks Schade’s floating mezza voce for the most meditative moments. Another favorable comparison with Harnoncourt’s recording is Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte, far more spontaneous both vocally and interpretatively (Italian is his native language, one must remember) than Gerhaher. The audience’s favorite, beyond any doubt, was Argentine baritone Victor Torres, who offered an all-round satisfying performance – velvety tonal quality, stylishness, solid technique, theatrical verve and, most of all, he is really funny.
The performance booklet makes a strong point for the Orlando Paladino’s semiserio style with many references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I would rather point to Così fan tutte – and I tend to believe that directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hoisseinpour would agree with me. In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the Commendatore’s predicament are serious business and Mozart has a sympathetic eye for them, while Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Ferrando’s petty ordeals are made fun of and we only relate to them and finally care about them and suffer for them because we have first laughed at them. In Orlando Paladino, the serio roles, Angelica and Medoro, are so aloof that Haydn makes a series of musical jokes by abruptly changing the affetto for their neverending lamenting. Their arias are almost a parody of opera seria with their overwrought strette. Accordingly, Angelica is shown in this production as the demanding and needy beauty queen who is always upset by the less-than-glamorous circumstances – basically the passive-aggressive dyed-blond bitch who sings coloratura at every opportunity. In his text on the booklet, Jacobs also defends the idea that Alcina is a serious role, but I guess that again the directors agree with me that she would be mezzo carattere – here shown as a drunk hostess who never knows exactly when she should display her superpowers.
Normally, I would resent the excess of slapstick comedy, but one must acknowledge that the libretto demands so – and the cast is extremely comfortable with that. I am not sure about the bearded fairies performing distracting (but funny) subplots in the background amd definitely dislike the silly coreographies – but there are so many ingenious touches that one cannot help but having a great time.