The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on Friday 26 February.
Dr Johnson defined opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment” – and for Exhibit A, he could have taken Handel’s Orlando. No opera can be judged fairly from a concert performance. But with the non-musical drama stripped out, Orlando’s high-voiced heroes, grandiose rhetoric and supernatural interventions veer dangerously towards Monty Python. By the umpteenth time that someone in this concert performance by Harry Bicket and The English Concert threatened to kill themself over love, honour or whatever, the Town Hall audience was openly laughing.
Why wouldn’t they? This was a terrifically entertaining evening, and the performances were uniformly superb. Bicket had assembled a dream cast. Countertenor Iestyn Davies blazed as the antihero Orlando, before delivering more reflective passages in tones so mellow that they almost seemed too lovely for a character who’s basically the ex-boyfriend from hell. In the trouser role of African prince (and dreamboat) Medoro the rich-voiced mezzo Sasha Cooke came across with a really masculine air of pride, while Kyle Ketelsen as Zoroastro looked every inch the magus in white tie and tails – and delivered majestic, ringing sound to match.
But at the centre of the drama are the oriental queen Angelica and the shepherdess Dorinda – and Erin Morley and Carolyn Sampson were ideal in every way. Morley’s light, brilliant soprano despatched Handel’s glittering coloratura with jewel-like clarity and poise, while Sampson’s vocal purity and grace made her the picture of pastoral innocence – until the moment in Act Three when, overcome by emotion, her voice deepened and darkened thrillingly and she brought the house down.
Bicket and his band responded exuberantly to Handel’s every detail, the continuo players swathing Angelica’s entrance in great flourishes of sound, and basses digging grittily in as Orlando descended into madness. The only way they could have served Handel better would have been with a fully-staged production.