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Handel's 'Orlando': The magic's in the music
Nicholas McGegan leads his baroque orchestra and soloists in magical performance of 'Orlando'
By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) ' No flying chariots. No vanishing mountains. No caves mysteriously transformed into temples.

No matter. There was magic aplenty on the stage of Alice Tully Hall during a concert version of Handel's opera "Orlando," presented as part of the Mostly Mozart festival.

The magician-in-chief was Nicholas McGegan, who conducted his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Sunday afternoon with unflagging energy and led five exemplary singers through their grueling paces in the solo roles.

Beaming broadly as if entranced by the great fun of it all, McGegan made the nearly 3 1/2-hour performance fly by ' much like the four genies who at one point are supposed to swoop down over the stage in the company of an eagle.

Handel adapted the opera in 1732 from the Italian romance epic "Orlando Furioso," which had been written 200 years earlier but remained wildly popular in his day. It's one of three operas he composed that are based on that text, and it contains some of his most haunting melodies and most innovative vocal writing.

Orlando, a Christian soldier fighting the infidels, gets waylaid by his love for the princess Angelica. She doesn't return his affection, having fallen for Medoro, a Saracen she nursed back to health. Orlando, being a proud knight, is prone to lethal jealousy.

Meanwhile, Dorinda, a shepherdess, is in love with Orlando, and not immune from jealousy herself.

It takes a magician, Zoroastro, to sort this all out and save the characters from disaster. At the finale, Angelica and Medoro are reunited, Orlando renounces love, and Dorinda invites everyone to her house to celebrate.

In Handel's day, the fantastical plot invited spectacular stage effects to simulate the many magical acts described in the libretto.

More recent productions have also indulged in imaginative flights: Peter Sellars famously set it at Cape Canaveral and made Orlando an astronaut. But in this concert performance, the spells and transformations were left to the imagination ' and to the elaborate hand and facial gestures supplied by German bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich as Zoroastro.

Friedrich, whose tall figure and long mane of steel-gray hair made him the perfect embodiment of an all-powerful wizard, sang with booming tone when the role didn't go too low. He may have overdone the mugging, but it was certainly an animated performance.

In the title role ' originally written for a castrato ' South African countertenor Clint van der Linde handled its intense dramatic demands and vocal acrobatics extremely well. Orlando gets his own mad scene, and Handel constructed it in a dizzying series of shifting tempos and rhythms ' including a gavotte and a few measures in then-unheard-of five-eighths meter.

As Angelica, the veteran Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle anchored the performance with a strong, even tone and elegant phrasing. In the ingenue role of Dorinda, the Russian-American soprano Yulia Van Doren brought charm and a bell-like purity to her arias, one of which requires her to warble like a nightingale.

Best of all was the English mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, whose warm, noble sound imbued the role of Medoro with an aching appeal. The highlight of the afternoon was her ravishing delivery of the aria "Verdi allori" ("Verdant trees, always united, preserve our names"), after she has carved her and Angelica's names in the forest.

This performance was part of a tour that continues at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in Connecticut on Monday night and concludes Tuesday at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.

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