- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The Washington Concert Opera, under the baton of Artistic Director Antony Walker, gave a stirring performance of Handel’s rarely heard opera “Orlando” Sunday evening at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The performance was distinguished by the appearance of not one, but two countertenors in starring roles.

Based on the epic tale of “Orlando Furioso,” Handel’s opera is the tale of a warrior knight driven to madness by his love for the foreign princess Angelica. When he discovers her heart has been won by Medoro, an African prince, he begins to lay the countryside to waste, including the house of the hapless shepherdess Dorinda.

Fortunately, both Handel and his librettist seem to have left a bit of humor in their presentation of the story, and all is brought to a relatively happy ending by the intervention of the sorcerer Zoroastro.

One of the difficulties in bringing baroque operas, including Handel’s, to modern audiences, is that many were written with prominent parts for male “castrati” singers, a practice no longer possible. Female singers are sometimes employed to sing these parts, but the effect is not quite the same.

However, a small number of expert countertenors — generally baritones who have learned how to sing in a refined falsetto — can be found to sing some of these parts. The Washington Concert Opera presented “Orlando” on Sunday with countertenors Bejun Mehta and David Walker in the roles of Orlando and Medoro respectively.

Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon sang Dorinda, and soprano Nathalie Paulin portrayed princess Angelica, Queen of Cathay. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger was cast in the role of Zoroastro, who serves as master of ceremonies and intervenes to bring Orlando back to normal.

All the singers acquitted themselves brilliantly. Mr. Mehta, in particular, made this a special evening, performing the role of Orlando from memory, as he has sung it many times before in fully staged productions.

Handel’s operas are undergoing a revival precisely because they involve a kind of beautiful, yet athletic singing difficult to find elsewhere. The fast-tempo arias, in particular, involve fiendish challenges not only for the vocal apparatus, but also for the speed at which the words need to be enunciated. Hearing the music is at times like witnessing a thrilling sporting event, wondering if the athlete will make it to the finish line.

Mr. Mehta never stumbled, and his musical wizardry was astonishing. His notes were precisely in tempo and his diction superb. Most important, he also was capable of producing a searingly beautiful tone, particularly in the lento passages that required great expression and control.

The remainder of the cast was equally adept, bringing the opera’s madcap action to life with a wink and a touch of humor. Miss McMahon was coy and winsome as the passionate but puzzled Dorinda. Miss Paulin imbued her sympathetic Angelica with rich, plummy tones. Mr. Mehta’s fellow countertenor, David Walker, was amusingly tentative and understated as Medoro, Angelica’s brave suitor who would rather hide than fight.

Mr. Pittsinger, in the bass role of Zoroastro, turned in a memorable performance with a deep yet crisp instrument that radiated authority while still handling adeptly the considerable musical challenges the composer tossed his way.

The orchestra was wonderfully refined under Mr. Walker’s direction, and there were just one or two minor glitches throughout the performance. Once again, another fine evening of forgotten but worthy opera in the nation’s capital by a little company that fills an important niche in the local music scene.

****

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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