Glyndebourne has been doing it for years. In Aix-en-Provence and Paris it's de rigueur. So why has it taken the Royal Opera House so long to start using gut strings for Handel?
Well, vive la révolution and all that, and a profound vote of thanks to whoever it was that persuaded Covent Garden that 18th-century music might sound better with short bows, natural horns, and oboes and bassoons that aren't covered with more silverware than an Oxbridge high table. It's a cheering thought that only 270 years and a ten minute stroll from the site of its London premiere, Handel's Orlando can now be heard with an orchestral sound that approximates the original; albeit with 15, as opposed to the King's Theatre's band of 24, violins. But during the opening night of Francisco Negrin's new production of Orlando with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Harry Bicket, my thoughts kept drifting to those Baroque specialists who had gone before him. To William Christie, whose Purcell-centenary production of King Arthur was ridiculed for its intimate dynamics by the theorbo-phobics. To Ivor Bolton, stylish stalwart of many a modern instruments Handel opera. And to poor Nicholas McGegan, whose Sisyphean task it was to tutor the full-metal woodwind of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in the exotic syntax of Rameau's Platée. Were they otherwise occupied last Monday? And what about Mark Minkowski? Or Paul McCreesh? Or Emmanuelle Haïm?
As his work at Glyndebourne has shown, Bicket is a capable Handelian with an excellent instinct for tempi. But was he the right man for a mission-statement production of this pastoral psychodrama? Had the OAE played their very best, had their lute-lite continuo section displayed more expressive impetus and not relied entirely on Robert Howarth's harpsichord to propel the recitatives, were their sound a little weightier and richer in the middle, had the phrasing been led from the bass-line rather than happening in trickle-down from the first violins, and had Negrin's staging not indicated a fatal lack of confidence in Handel's score - of which, more later - I'd probably have cared less about Bicket's breezy blandness. But there's a real danger that something that sounds pretty is seen to be adequate for early opera, that phrases with feminine endings are the sole criterion of historically informed performance practice, and that ensembles that observe this sacred cow of a convention are assumed to play super-stylishly. Don't get me wrong. Feminine endings are fine and much of the OAE's Orlando - especially the obbligati - is rewarding, if less dynamic than their work under Christie. But final chords, however muted, should have a definite length and not somehow fade into the ether like a cathedral recessional. Baroque opera is wordy; it springs from language first and foremost, and no Italian would ever swallow the final syllable of a sentence in this shuffling fashion.
On stage, Handel's score - and the anonymous libretto - fared better. Despite Orlando's subterranean tessitura, Alice Coote's erotically challenged hero was sensitively and quite powerfully drawn. Barbara Bonney, whose Act I arias were gusty and effortful, gave a magnificent reading of Angelica's increasingly uncontainable romantic delirium in Acts II and III. As Medoro, counter-tenor Bejun Mehta revealed the most delicious legato, while Camilla Tilling overcame Negrin's tiresome mugging'n'shrugging interpretation of her naive character to deliver a sweetly pathetic Dorinda. Only Jonathan Lemalu floundered into catch-all Tudorbethan bluster, though Zoroastro is, I suspect, a rather thankless role.
But what of Negrin? Any director who feels it necessary to distract his audience from the final (ie repeated) section of a da capo aria is a director who shouldn't be tackling operas of this period. Instead of intensifying the emotions of his characters through reiteration, Negrin waggles dancers clad in costumes from the century preceding those worn by the singers, slides, climbing frames and a roundabout - all extrapolated from the gaudy, post-modern, slowly exploding revolve that serves as Dorinda's Arcadian retreat - in our faces as though somehow to apologise for the repetition of this sublime music. Why? And if Negrin has no faith in the dramatic integrity and purpose of da capo form, how can we? For Covent Garden, a company that still has much to learn from Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera's recent successes in staging Handel's dramatic works, this quasi-baroque Orlando is a step in the right direction but in shoes quite unsuitable for the longer journey.
So to the bloodied and beaten steps of one of the most horribly abused operatic heroines; Rusalka. Olivia Fuchs's new production for Opera North - which intensifies the horrific racial and sexual humiliation of Dvorak's water-nymph through a graphic gang rape and the sinister surgical attentions of Susan Bickley's unnervingly playful Jezibaba - is one of the most harrowing experiences I could imagine recommending. It's also one of the most fascinating; well-directed, expertly sung and acted, and, under the intuitive musical direction of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, quite superbly, sensually, chillingly played. Like The Little Mermaid, Undine and the countless Inuit legends about the sexual incompatibility of sea- and human beings, Rusalka is a warning against miscegenation, and though Fuchs refrains from making any obvious parallel with the nationalist sentiments of the time of this opera's creation, her interpretation shows rape as an act of war rather than desire. Rusalka (Gisele Allen) and her sisters are "the other" in a society that, as shown by the actions of the Prince (Stuart Skelton) and his courtiers, is terrified of difference. With the bravest, sweetest and most heartfelt of central performances from Allen, Skelton's properly loathsome Prince, splendid cameos from Natasha Jouhl, Kim-Marie Woodhouse and Alexandra Sherman as the delinquent Wood Nymphs, the snarling glamour of Susannah Glanville as the Foreign Princess, and Niki Turner and Bruno Poet's stunning, simple designs, this is another unmissable production from Opera North - to which company I will be returning for next week's Traviata-thon, so get your hankies ready.
'Orlando': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 23 October. 'Russalka': Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 222 6222) to 17 October and touringReuse content