Jorge Luis Borges used to teach that there were only five or six basic stories in all of world literature. A fan of Baroque opera might be forgiven for thinking that there were only a few actual stories, and that "Orlando Furioso" was the primary one. Soon after Vivaldi composed two operas on the subject, George Friedrich Handel fashioned three. The first in the trilogy, 1733's "Orlando," was premiered on Sunday afternoon in a new production at City Opera.
Overall this was a very tuneful experience, more of a toe-tapping than an intellectually challenging one. Conductor Antony Walker set and maintained a crisp pace, with the recitatives always in strict meter, and so the music never dragged. Most of the singing was quite delightful, an 18th-century London version of Broadway. But aficionados will be disappointed at this company's inability to perform even the least sophisticated rudiments of vocal ornamentation.
Those familiar with the film "Farinelli" have a sense of what sacrifices an aspiring singer of the period needed to make for his art, an 18th-century illustration of the concept that less is more. Handel actually preferred Carestini and chose him over his rival for his own opera company - a decision that in retrospect seems shortsighted from a financial point of view, since Farinelli soon thereafter became the toast of England.
The superstar was a soprano, however, and the composer preferred the contralto voice of Carestini for his heroic parts. Also Farinelli, contrary to his cinematic alter ego, was, by all contemporary accounts, cold and dispassionate on the stage, concerned exclusively with the color and quality of his voice and not at all interested in developing a character.
As an occupation, the castrato has gone the way of the spit boy or petardier, replaced in our own time either by the female voice or the specialized countertenor, an extremely rare but currently very trendy resident of the aerie of the tessitura. For their knight, City Opera has chosen one of the hottest of these hot properties, Bejun Mehta (yes, he is from that Mehta family). Mr. Mehta has a naturally beautiful voice and employs it effectively.
There are many mad scenes in the standard operatic repertoire for women, but the only one written for a man is that for Boris Goudonov. In the Baroque era, however, when male and female were defined in very different ways, a pivotal scene like Orlando's madness is the highlight of an evening. Musically, the dementia is expressed very specifically: This man falls apart right in front of our eyes and our ears.
Instead of the structured music of the other characters, Orlando is doomed to sing elements of his arias in scrambled order, reaching a point wherein aria, recitative, and arioso are all mixed together. Further, he intones in exotic 5/8 time, and even if the listener is not aware of this metrical device, the music itself is manifestly skewed.
Mr. Mehta does a reasonable job in this section, not only varying his melodic line nimbly, but also acting his anguish with his body. He is his own sworn enemy, not only in a Jungian sense, but actually as part of the convoluted plot. This was powerful music making, but was severely affected by the singer's weak effort at ornamentation. Not only does Mr. Mehta not seem to have the breath control for runs and trills, but he also seems poorly coached.
In "Orlando," we have not one but two of these unusual voices. In what Peter Schickele has called the "bargain countertenor" role, debut artist Matthew White was considerably more satisfying than Mr. Mehta. There is less filigree in the part of Medoro, but more of a troubadour's line; Mr. White was silken in his interpretation. When he took his farewell of Angelica in Act Two, the audience rewarded him with the most applause of the day.
As for the women, both Jennifer Aylmer as Dorinda and Amy Burton as Angelica were lyrical and warm, putting forth their parts with infectious good humor and solid melodic skill. Ms. Aylmer came the closest to authenticity in ornamentation, but anyone who has ever heard Cecilia Bartoli knows that there is a lot more to this arcane art than vocalise. I can only conclude that conductor Walker has little use for this seemingly essential element of Baroque operatic production. Otherwise, why would it all be so bland?
There were precious few tenors on the Handelian stage and the baritone did not even exist as a vocal type until well into the career of Mozart. At the time of "Orlando," there was only the "basso," what we would now classify as the bass-baritone, and this cast has a fine exponent in David Pittsinger. Fresh from his City Opera triumph as Figaro, he stood head and shoulders above the rest as the magician Zoroastro. Christopher Gomez didn't need to worry about vocal Rococo as he plays the part of Amor (Cupid) in dumbshow, but he was a major part of the comic stage business.
The production is serviceable and sylvan, creating a pastoral mood by keeping the beds outside - is it all a dream? - while bringing the trees into a sort of Trump Tower lobby for Act Two. As to the costumes, also designed by David Zinn, slim lines and floor lengths are decidedly in vogue. Everybody looked marvelous.
So why go to see this "Orlando"? For one thing, it is an exceptionally pleasant performance, leaving much to whistle on the way home. Also, it is perhaps a painless introduction to the rigors of the Baroque for the uninitiated. And finally, if you have any desire to see Julie Taymor's "Magic Flute" when it is revived at the Met again next season, go to "Orlando" first to see whence the magic and much of the humor came.
For the final concert of the series "Brahms the Progressive" at Miller Theatre, an ensemble that does not play together on a regular basis presented early works of both Brahms and Schonberg. Oddly, this hastily assembled group was far the superior of the two previous sets of performers, who both travel together for a living. Two New York chamber music veterans - violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Fred Sherry - teamed with relative newcomers: Violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Jesse Mills, violist Richard O'Neill, and cellist Sophie Shao.
Ms. Frautschi and Ms. Shao are Avery Fisher career grant winners, and although I am unaware of the work of three of these young performers, I have thrilled to Ms. Shao on several occasions. As an anchor of the exceptional chamber group Concertante, perhaps the best-kept secret in town, she has been involved in some of the finest recitals in memory, including this night's Brahms sextet. Concertante has also recorded "Verklarte Nacht," the sextet by Schonberg presented as the Miller finale.
The reading of the Brahms Opus 18 was characterized by a lightness of texture and touch that was just right for this particular piece of folk-inspired song spinning. On the surface, there seems little connection with the Schonberg sextet, especially since the Brahms is purposefully thin and translucent, whereas the more modern work is thick and painstakingly opaque. But the expert playing carried the evening, leaving programmatic considerations in the dust.
The lyricism of Mr. Neubauer was infectious, as the first two movements rely heavily on viola statements of the main themes - Brahms's father was an unusual combination of a violist and a horn player - and the remainder of the ensemble took their phrasing cues from him.
As a cellist, Schonberg was intimately involved with the chamber music of Brahms, eventually responding to the suggestion of his old friend Otto Klemperer to fashion an orchestral version of the Piano Quartet in G Minor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. Many years earlier he had taken Romanticism to its glorious apex in the string sextet "Verklarte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night").
This extremely overheated music - the plot centers on a forbidden tryst - requires a particular fin-de-siecle style to truly convey its passions. Ms. Frautschi, who had played second fiddle in the Brahms, emerged as the first chair player here and simply stole the show. Her sweet, singing tone and generous, almost obsessive, vibrato was exactly the type of overstuffed sound that would have been produced by Arnold Rose, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and brother-in-law of Gustav Mahler, who led the premiere performance of this now-revered work in 1902.
If you are going to tackle "Transfigured Night," then why not go all the way? What a welcome tonic to chase away the sound of contemporary violinists who have been unduly influenced by the masochistic distillers of period instrument philosophy. The others fell right in line. Mr. O'Neill's maniacal pizzicatos were suitably arresting and Ms. Shao's dramatic utterances were downright frightening. This was music making of the highest order, unapologetically emotional and vibrant.
My very first assignment as a reporter in New York some years ago was to cover a series of symposia and concerts organized and realized by Mr. Sherry. The rubric of the whole was "Arnold Schonberg: Conservative Radical" and the experience was musically life-changing. Obviously, Mr. Sherry had a major influence as mentor for this evening's proceedings. The ending of the Schonberg was pure bliss, each of the six dropping radically in dynamics for a final diaphanous close. A butterfly's wing, a shadow on the moon, a kiss. These last few moments were simply, well, transfigured.