Haydn’s Orlando Paladino at the Berlin Staatsoper

Joseph Haydn is, without doubt, one of my favourite composers; I relish his freshness, inventiveness and humour but also, when in a serious mood, his sensibility and compassion. Although, for concert managers, he has tended to be overshadowed by Mozart and Beethoven, his symphonies and string quartets are often to be found on the menu, if only as starters. But when it comes to his operas, performances on the stage are rare indeed and, in this country, encountered – if at all – only at festivals and fringe venues. Why the neglect by the mainstream companies?

The question is provoked by viewing a video of Orlando Paladino given in 2009 at the Berlin Staatsoper. Let it be admitted at once that the work is not a masterpiece. A mixture of comedy and tragedy, combined with a dose of magic, its dramatic content does not cohere and modern audiences, less familiar with the Orlando legend and its many baroque operatic settings than Haydn’s contemporaries, may find its themes of heroism and insanity difficult to follow. But the score is full of marvels. There are, for example, dazzling coloratura passages for the soprano Angelica, a testing aria for the baritone Pasquale exploring a variety of vocal techniques, some original rhythmic devices in the orchestra accompaniment, as well as – less obviously – inventive colouring and phrasing in the recitatives.

The forces assembled in Berlin were of a calibre to make the most of these delights. Pride of place to René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester, able, as specialists, to get to the heart of the composer’s fertile imagination. In the title role, Thomas Randle convinced through musicality and pure tone, as well as dramatic restraint, never exaggerating the mental disorder. Marlis Petersen as Angelica trilled her way through the elaborate high-lying passages with immaculate, crystal-like clarity and maintained a dignified stage presence. Magnus Staveland was her lover and if his portrayal was pale in comparison, this surely is necessary for the comedy inherent in the part, an unheroic wet fish.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska was a knowing, commanding Alcina, expertly invoking vocal ornamentation to deploy her magic. Victor Torres as Orlando’s much troubled squire Pasquale effectively wavered between self-confident bragging and pathetic insecurity, at the same time negotiating the challenging musical inflexions of the role with considerable assurance. In the other baritone role Rodomonte, Pietro Spagnoli, out to humiliate Orlando, was suitably and amusingly blustering, but musically and dramatically he was outshone by Sunhae Im as his shepherdess assistant Eurilla. Her light soprano was ideal for the pitter-patter of her vocal contributions as were her pert, nimble stage presence and movement. Her facial expressions by themselves justified her fee.

I had mixed feelings about the production, the joint responsibility of director/designer Nigel Lowery and choreographer Amir Hosseinpour. My only previous experience of the work was at the Haydn Festival in the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt and there, in the absence of a real stage, the action was brilliantly devised in an open space with the minimum of props. The setting in Berlin could not have been more different: the setting projected massive, garish images some of them reflecting the world of chivalric endeavour, others of uncertain derivation, but they were  largely successful in underlining the fairy-take character of the piece; and this, notwithstanding the risk that the music would be overloaded by the richness of the visual effects, and the same goes for the sometimes frenetic physical action on the stage. Most importantly, it was highly entertaining and the production grew on me, as the performance progressed.

So, a vindication for Haydn opera, the satisfaction from which is qualified by one’s frustration that encounters with this area of his output are so rare.