'Orlando': WCO Trims The Fat

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

There's a lot to be said for paring opera down to its bare bones. Get rid of all the stagey excess -- the glittering costumes, the prancing supernumeraries, the, um, "acting" of the divas, even the set itself -- and the music can emerge unscathed.

That's the philosophy of the Washington Concert Opera, and its production of George Frideric Handel's 1733 "Orlando" on Sunday at Lisner Auditorium would make a believer out of the most hidebound traditionalist. On an elegantly minimalist stage, Artistic Director Antony Walker led a small orchestra of period instruments and five exceptionally fine singers through this relentlessly inventive masterpiece -- and the result was an unqualified triumph.

The actual story (from Ludovico Ariosto's epic "Orlando Furioso") is silliness itself -- warriors do battle, maidens sigh and conspire, madness descends and a benevolent wizard finally saves the day. Other producers have tried to modernize the tale (Peter Sellars once set part of it on Mars), but Walker's direct approach revealed just how musically adventurous and psychologically astute this opera really is.

Walker drew a crisp and electric performance from the orchestra, but the soloists were no less compelling -- particularly Bejun Mehta in the title role. It's not easy to play a ferocious warrior when you're singing falsetto, but Mehta -- one of the finest countertenors around -- brought it off with aplomb and understated wit. The young soprano Sarah Jane McMahon sang Dorinda with fetching charm and a lovely, agile voice, while soprano Nathalie Paulin brought fiery power to the role of Angelica. Countertenor David Walker made a very fine Medoro, and David Pittsinger -- the sole low voice in the ensemble -- balanced the forces with his commanding baritone.

-- Stephen Brookes

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