Fifty years ago, Christopher Hogwood grafted a new shoot to the tree of British classical music. His brainchild, the Academy of Ancient Music, was to champion the performance of Baroque music on contemporary instruments, providing listeners with a better understanding of the musicality of the era.

To oversimplify, a Handel concerto played on a gut-strung violin sounds very different than when played on a steel-strung instrument. It is all to do with subtle musical overtones, warmth of sound and, I think, re-introducing an exquisite sense of light and fragility.

Whatever controversy flared, Gramophone, the authoritative musical magazine, sneered that no-one would volunteer to submit themselves to ancient dental techniques. Why subject the ear to the torture of ancient musical instruments?

The debate that raged amongst a divided musical community, and to some extent continues today, is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, the audience spoke. With more than 300 CDs on its playlist, its own record label and now in the highly capable hands of musical director Laurence Cummings, Hogwood’s grafted shoot is today one of the strongest limbs on that musical tree. Game, set and match, Hogwood.

London’s Barbican was packed for the Academy’s semi-staged performance of Handel’s 1733 opera, Orlando. We are celebrating the Academy’s 50th Anniversary. 

The opus is the first of a Handel trilogy – the others are Ariodante and Alcina – based on the epic poem Orlando furioso, the much-plundered 1516 magnum opus of Ludovico Ariosto, considered the finest expression of the literary trends and spiritual attitudes of the Renaissance.

The point for anyone afraid to sniff the air of fusty baroque is that Ariosto’s poem is the 16thcentury equivalent of a racy TV sitcom script today. The Academy’s programme note sums it up nicely: ‘its substance is a succession of charged conversations and reflections among five people, four of them in love, often complicated by what they are concealing from themselves or from each other’. 

This could be a teaser for Krane and Kaufman’s 90s/Noughties TV series, Friends. Only, Krane and Kaufman were more restrained than Ariosto and Handel. Come on you TV coach potatoes. Stir yourselves unto the Barbican. Experience sitcom furioso. 

Orlando tweaks every human gut string in the book. Hope, regret, joy, anxiety, grief, suspicion, jealousy, rage, despair, love, lust – and even madness. Buckle up for a hectic ride with the gallant knight, Orlando – gone bonkers.

The back story. Orlando, a champion knight essential to Charlemagne’s crusade to liberate Jerusalem, is having a hissy fit. Will he be driven by duty or love? He has fallen for Angelica, queen of Cathay. She loves Medora, a wounded prince she has concealed in the conveniently located Airbnb cottage operated by shepherdess, Dorinda. (Please give a favourable 5* review on Crusade Advisor.)

Off we go. Dorinda ignores the Airbnb rule that it’s a no-no to fall in love with the guests and is about to tumble for Medoro. Zoroastro, Orlando’s magus, who tries to maintain a Jill Biden-like grip on Orlando throughout the chaos (‘No Orlando, you will not stand down from the Crusade gig’) opens the opera urging his protégé to choose glory in battle, not love. Useless.

Dorinda sees Orlando riding past with the rescued princess, Isabella, is convinced he is in love with her and suddenly realises, ‘Oh I’m in love, like (swoon) Orlando. But with Medora.’

In the opening moments of the opera, it becomes clear that it is going to be action-packed, full of nuanced misunderstandings among the characters and will require full staging to make an impact on the audience. Not in the clever hands of the Academy it doesn’t. 

No need even to cast the bit part, Princess Isabella, whose sole contribution is to be silently rescued as a supernumerary. She is a back desk violinist haplessly singled out by Orlando as he rushes past and liberated mid-bow stroke, whether she wants to be or not. Hilarious. 

Meanwhile, over an optional cottage country breakfast (extra charge), Angelica and Medora declare their love for each other. But to calm down the amorous Dorinda, Medora spins the yarn Angelica is a relative. Perhaps his granny. 

Finding them in a non-gran clinch later, Dorinda susses out the truth and Angelica gives her a gift of jewellery – ‘there, there, dear’. Doesn’t really work. 

Angelica and Medora head off, carving their names on the bark of a nearby tree. ‘Ange and Med was here’. Hang on. This is the Barbican. Plenty of wood-panelled walls, but no trees. There is, however, the convenient 16th century Theorbo wielded by William Carter. The neck seems about 12 feet long. Ideal as a tree doppelganger. So, it is written on by Angelica and Medora as they slip offstage. Carter played on, seemingly oblivious. Pure comical genius.  

In Act II Dorinda tells Orlando Angelica loves Medora and shows him the jewel, saying she had been given it by Medora. But Orlando recognises it as a gift he had given Angelica. He becomes, unsurprisingly, ‘furioso’, pursues Angelica intent on murdering her, but Zoroastro carries her out of reach in a conveniently hailable Uber-Cloud.

Orlando loses it, imagining himself crossing the River Styx and chasing Medoro into the underworld, finding his hated rival in the arms of Prosperina – Medora here, Medora everywhere. Zoroastro appears in a flying chariot, pulls Orlando in and back to what passes for reality. 

Act III finds Medora back in Dorinda’s cottage. Orlando, thinking that Dorinda is someone else, destroys the cottage, kills Medoro and when Angelica pitches up to check out of the cottage before the midday deadline he tries to kill her too. 

It falls to Zoroastro to reimpose order. This is a much relied upon operatic device of convenience. Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Neptune in his Idomeneo, Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the Gordian plot knot becomes impossibly complex, cut it with divine intervention. 

Zoroastro returns Orlando to sanity. Orlando, who understands he has killed Angelica and Medoro vows to kill himself, but of course Zoroastro has saved them both and Orlando blesses their marriage. Dorinda applies for a function licence for her (presumably restored) cottage and they all celebrate the wedding there. 

Volte face, U-turn, betrayal, denunciation, denial – it’s all great, topical general election material, only Rishi Sunak had no Zoroastro to whisk him to safety.

Iestyn Davies, countertenor, one of the most accomplished interpreters of Handel on the current stage, sang Orlando. He is ideal for semi-staged performances as he acts throughout. Every gesture is laden with meaning, such as his reading the names of Angelica and Medora, carved into the bark of the Theorbo. 

Davies also performs regularly with Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Their Rodelinda in New York’s Carnegie Hall was a great success, but on the Barbican stage Davies was given more scope to act out his role. He took full advantage of that. Even falling asleep flat out in front of Cummings’ harpsichord at one less furioso moment.

Gets about a bit. At Garsington on Tuesday, a mere two days later, there he was as Oberon in the Britten A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Possibly wafted there on a cloud by Zoroastro. More of that performance another day. 

Whether Hogwood would have approved of a counter tenor singing the role instead of a trouser-role mezzo soprano is uncertain. In a fascinating lecture he delivered on accepting the post of honorary professor at New York’s Cornell University in 2013, Hogwood expressed a distaste for the modern practice of replacing mezzos with countertenors. 

However, as in the ten years since his death in 2014 a new generation of counter tenors has entered the arena – Davies, Aryeh Nusbaum Cohen, Anthony Roth Costanzo – perhaps he would be more impressed by their purity of tone. 

Castrati – one of the most powerful and original elements of performance in Handel’s era – are no longer to be found. Unless you self-identify as a castrato, which you are entitled to do, but doesn’t really deal with the voice thing. 

Hogwood cites the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the Italian castrato who died in 1922, the only recorded castrato ever, as an example of the star sound Handel sought to cast. While Hogwood argues passionately his case for musical originality, I find his argument for mezzos being preferable to countertenors for castrati roles unconvincing.  

It would be perverse to ignore the pool of countertenor talent currently on hand. Which is why Glyndebourne has replaced the mezzo originally cast as Giulio Cesare in their 2005 production of Handel’s same name opera (it was Sarah Connelly) with Nusbaum Cohen in this year’s revival. And it works perfectly. 

Anna Dennis, soprano, sang Angelica and brought a sense of quiet dignity to the role, politely determined to put the furioso Orlando in his place. 

Austrian mezzo soprano, Sophie Rennart was sublime in the trouser role of Medora. I had not heard her before. Her voice had all the even richness that makes the mezzo voice so alluring.

Airbnb hostess, Dorinda, soprano Rachel Redmond, was a bag of intense vitality. She balanced the pathos of her doomed love for Medoro with a comical acceptance of the harsh facts of life. 

Her, ‘Oh well, let’s get on with it’ attitude to Medora’s cynical disdain for her affection and Orlando’s mistaking her identity alike were comical and rooted her in the audience’s own world.

Handel gives Zoroastro an unusually prominent role for a mentor. It is he who opens the action, setting the scene as Orlando appears. ‘He comes, now my counsels to work!’ No one better than Matthew Brook, bass-baritone, with his avuncular portrayal of the calming god-like figure who restores order amidst chaos. A sort of Cabinet Secretary. 

Why does a performance of the Academy of Ancient Music sound different? In an ensemble of twenty-two the sound sparkles, especially when the musicians are exposed rather than buried under an opera stage. 

Cummings’ direction from the harpsichord brought from his ensemble what I can best describe as a musical conversation. The music tells a story, as does the libretto, and the ebb and flow of well-articulated sentiment grabbed the emotions. Listen to any Leopold Stokowski lush arrangement of full orchestra – Fantasia – to appreciate the difference. Treacle! 

One detail. Yet it is not a detail. The programme was superb. Informative, with a full libretto and a fascinating essay about Handel’s era and the significance of his musical treatment of each of the characters by Dr Ruth Smith, the distinguished Cambridge historian. An ideal companion for the afternoon.

As was my concert neighbour, Elizabeth de Friend, who turned out to be on the Academy’s Board of Trustees. By the second interval Reaction had blagged its way into the guest reception. 

As with all music ensembles these days economic survival is centre stage. I felt the vibrancy of the Academy’s mission, to not just carry on with Hogwood’s work but build upon it, with such intensity that one of my first acts on reaching home was to enrol as a friend. 

As early music groups proliferate across the musical world it is important to understand they follow in the footsteps of that relentless pioneer, Christopher Hogwood. Judging by the thoroughly engaging performance of this Orlando the founder’s heritage is not only safe under Laurence Cummings’ direction. The Academy of Ancient Music is set to scale new heights. 

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