BOSTON—Since 1981, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival has been one of the most anticipated events on the calendar—a whirlwind of concerts and presentations, mixed in with a trade show—all of it pivoting around the centerpiece, a fully staged Baroque opera.
The 2019 festival features Agostino Steffani’s Orlando generoso, first presented in 1691. The libretto (Ortensio Mauro), crafted from Ariosto’s then-recent epic Orlando furioso, reworks the myth, focusing on the period of Orlando’s love-induced folly, not his battle exploits. As a musical and visual showcase, Orlando generoso worked brilliantly on Boston’s Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre stage. Its dramatic values worked less well.
The cast sang with distinction from the first note to the very-much-later last note. Well-developed roles for almost a dozen singers, an endless stream of engaging recitative and arias, and robust support from the Robert Mealy–led Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, made a challenging dramatic presentation into a musical extravaganza.
The Italian-born (near Venice, in 1654) Steffani also worked in the French idiom, and was later posted to Germany. His absorption of each of those styles—a more pronounced distinction in 17th century Europe—led to his rich and varied musical textures. Orlando generoso—nearly four hours long onstage—offers an unceasing dose of gorgeous arias, inventive recitative and instrumental accompaniment of a high order. Singers without facile, well-supported coloratura were not asked to apply.
Orlando generoso might best be titled “Orlando lacrimoso.” Misery is the subtext of every aria. Set in imaginary Cathay (China), Atlante (and other wizards) interfere with the planned marriage of princess Bradamante and the noble Ruggiero. When a runaway griffon carries Ruggiero off, he displays his chivalry to another princess, Angelica, who is hiding her surreptitious marriage to a simple soldier. Eventually Orlando, driven mad with unrequited love for Angelica himself, arrives and further complicates the mating pattern. Then Angelica’s own father, the king of Cathay, falls in love with her (Angelica’s in disguise, but it’s still creepy).
Orlando’s madness infects all the relationships. Everyone has lost a love, is unhappy in love, is hiding from their love, or fleeing their love. Laments fill the air, broken only with comic relief from wizards and their tricks—which occasionally worked as planned. And occasionally didn’t.
The music made the missteps inconsequential. Vividly bringing the interwoven love disasters to life, soprano Emöke Baráth (singing Bradamante) and Amanda Forsythe (Angelica); countertenors Christopher Lowrey (Ruggiero), Kacper Szelazek (the soldier Medoro) and Flavio Ferri-Benedetti (King Galafro); tenor Zachary Wilder (Brunello, a wizard); baritone Jesse Blumberg (Atlante); and the title character, tenor Aaron Sheehan, explored Steffani’s rich score. Mealy and the festival orchestra, jam-packed into a tight oval in pit, may not have been able to move, but they played magnificently.
Superior singing was the norm. Baráth dominated the first act—gorgeous tone, easy power (needed frequently) for her instrument, and a swashbuckling appearance. The Grammy-winning Sheehan may have had the first act off—in another club-footed dramatic move, our Orlando is the last character to appear onstage—but it was worth waiting to hear his steady tone, coupled with the dexterity to achieve Steffani’s acrobatics. Each of the three countertenors dazzled. Forsythe sang with accustomed beauty. Blumberg was a force as the magician Atlante.
Mauro’s libretto may have been one woeful tale, but Steffani’s word-painting made the most of every nuance. Recitatives were hardly formulaic; florid music would interrupt the narrative flow to dwell on a feeling. Arias ranged from simple songs to more complex da capo structures—two parts, the first repeated—with substantial orchestral involvement, not just continuo. The plot clangs from one miserable misadventure to the next, but with all the gorgeous music, viewers happily give up on keeping track of who is tricking or betraying or avoiding whom.
So what if the props were hokey. In the opening scene, the griffon carrying Atlante failed to arrive on time. A very game Bradamante and Brunello held frozen positions for minutes, eventually breaking character and ad libbing a bit. Finally our griffon descended. Since the magic and wizardry were mainly comic tropes throughout, the gaffe sort of felt like part of the plan. Sort of.
The directorial team included Mealy, Gilbert Blin, Melinda Sullivan, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, longtime festival collaborators. Sets (Blin with Kate A. Noll) shifted from forest to dwelling to city square, all of it funneled into the center of the stage. This boxed-in playing area seemed unimaginative, especially when juxtaposed with the lavishly conceived costumes (Anna Watkins) and the fantastic dancing (Sullivan, with Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière). The well-conceived choreography showed up subtly in great blocking, but more interestingly in the entr’acte ballet interludes, beautifully realized by the festival dance company. They could have used more room to explore.
The festival continues through June 16. Concerts include Kristian Bezuidenhout directing the Dunedin Consort in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mealy leading the festival orchestra in theatrical music of Rameau, and appearances by Sequentia, Doulce Mémoire, Solamente Naturali, the Boston Camerata and ACRONYM Ensemble. A performance of “Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain”—a pastiche of semi-staged works by Charpentier, Lully and Lalande—will also tour later this month to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in western Massachusetts and to New York’s Caramoor Center. For more information visit www.bemf.org or call 617-661-1812.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com