Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin - 2009
René Jacobs, Nigel Lowery, Amir Hosseinpour, Marlis Petersen, Tom Randle, Victor Torres, Pietro Spagnoli, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Magnus Staveland, Sunhae Im, Arttu Kataja
EuroArts - Blu-ray
There appear to be two ways to look at this production of Haydn's Orlando Paladino recorded at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in 2009. You can either view the bizarre elements as a hodgepodge of ideas and a bit of a mess, or you can accept that it simply reflects the perspective of the state of madness of Count Orlando himself, with a little bit of the humour that Haydn injects into his 'dramma eroicomico' (heroic comedy) version of Ariosto's classic tale of the Crusades. Since it's not entirely successful, there's a case to be made for either of those views but there's maybe a third way of looking at it that surpasses all such considerations. As directed by René Jacobs, it's simply a superb account of the work with some outstanding singing performances that bring a real sense of character to the work.
Character is at least something that there is plentiful supply of in the set and production design of directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour. Haydn's version of the Orlando legend still retains some Baroque elements - there's not too much action and a lot of stage entrances and exits for a series of solo arias. There is more to this of course, Haydn providing some beautiful duets, comic interludes and interaction and of course the obligatory ensemble finales at the end of each act, all of it set to the composer's stirring and somewhat stately musical arrangements. The actual drama however can still be theatrically rather static, so the production here at least tries to bring it to life. Partly that's done through René Jacobs' conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester and the use of period instruments - which brings considerable character to the work - but as far as the stage direction goes, it's achieved by adopting the perspective of Orlando in his madness.
Apart from the character's wild beard and shock of hair, the most obvious indications of Orlando's madness are the other representations lookalike bearded figures whirling away in the background and sometimes forcing themselves centre-stage between the other figures. It can be a bit strange then to see these figures pop up, particularly when they are dressed as a bishop or a matador and even in a wedding dress or as a flight hostess uniform. Evidently these are meant to represent various aspects of Orlando's fractured personality in relation to his time in the crusades and, most significantly, in his jealousy over Angelica deserting him for the Saracen warrior Medoro. Quite how some of these personalities match isn't always entirely clear, but there's no such doubts about what is meant when Orlando turns into an axe-wielding maniac in the fashion of 'The Shining', cutting his way through the door of the castle where Angelica and Medoro are hiding out.
The production then at least has a sense of humour and it's perfectly in keeping with Haydn's relatively light-hearted version of the work. Orlando Paladino is a very different work from Handel's dark and melancholic Orlando, so there's room for such playfulness. Much of it comes through the characters of Eurilla and Pasquale - both of them delightfully played here by Im Sunhae and Victor Torres - but there's also opportunities to have fun with the spells of the enchantress Alcina and even with Radomonte, the King of Barbary. Dressing the latter up as a pantomime pirate who has an unfortunate habit of accidentally cutting things with his sword (including amputating his own hand) might be taking things too far for some however. Likewise depicting Angelica as some kind of beauty queen might appear to be making things weird for the sake of it, but Haydn can do melancholic wistfulness just as well as comedy, and the production and the musical performance supports and integrates the variety of tones.
If there's not any single reason why this integrates so well and actually works - an opera must come together on every level - the performances of the cast here nonetheless have a lot to do with it. I've seen Marlis Petersen sing Reimann (Medea), Verdi (Violetta) and now Haydn - three composers who could hardly be more different - and yet she has been nothing less than stunning in each of them. Her light, lyrical yet strong and expressive soprano voice however seems particularly well-suited to Haydn (and I could see her doing earlier Baroque music quite effectively as well). You really have to put personality into the characters like Angelica here, and Petersen has plenty of that. Tom Randle is a superb Orlando, clear of diction with a deep rounded timbre. There's nuance of expression here in the singing and the acting, even within such an exaggerated interpretation. All the other performances are equally strong and integrate well with the musical and dramatic elements. Im Sunhae however is particularly sparkling and vibrant as Eurilla, and Alexandrina Pendatchanska an effective Alcina.
Released by EuroArts, the Blu-ray presents the performance well, with a good image transfer and clear, bright stereo and surround audio mixes. The sound is a little bit echoing because of the stage set and the microphone placement (no wireless mics on the performers here), but it's clear and detailed. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a good essay in the enclosed booklet. There's no synopsis either, but a full printed tracklist is useful. The BD is region-free, full-HD, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German and Italian.