The English Consort
Birmingham Town Hall
Review: Paul David, 26 February 2016-03-08
Handel in intimate mood
This is a fine performance of a work in which Handel gives himself room to breathe.
Written in 1733, the first of three magical operas based on Aristo’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, Handel’s Orlando is an intimate affair. With a cast of five, no subplot and Aristotelian unities of time and place, this is a work where Handel has the space to concentrate on characters: he gradually reveals their complex, flawed and human selves through a succession of contrasting and subtly nuanced musical numbers.
Subtlety and nuance lie at the heart of conductor Harry Bicket’s reading, and are qualities that he manages to bring out from his singers in abundance. For, while vocal pyrotechnics abound, it is where characters stop to dwell on the pathos and pain evoked by their complex inter-relationships that this performance is at its most arresting.
From the start American Bass-Baritone Kyle Ketelson as magician-philosopher Zorastro, sets the vocal standard high. A singer with physical and tonal presence, his production is even and rich with effortless access to upper and lower registers.
Iestyn Davies in the titular role effortlessly meets this vocal standard and raises it. His opening number Non fu gia men forte Alcidei, a stately expression of Orlando’s heroism, is perfectly poised, with a tone both rich and brilliant, effortless passage work and phrasing that melts.
Soprano Carolyn Sampson, Dorinda, settles quickly and, as the opera unfolds, provides a gloriously rich coloratura.
What follows from each soloist over the course of the work is a sustained masterclass in how to sing Handel. Quite breath-taking. Erin Morley, with honey tones in the lower register, fizzing brilliance at the top; Sasha Cooke, a most statuesque voice. This was glorious singing at its very best.
The minimal and unfussy approach to concert staging left the singing to speak for itself.
Handel creates sonic variety and expressive effect in the orchestra by stripping the texture to expose instruments rather than adding. Less is more. The English Concert is thus revealed as a body of accomplished soloists who play brilliantly together. A ravishing, highly intelligent performance from orchestra and singers alike. Most worthy of the lengthy – and part-standing – ovation given by a highly appreciative audience.