In Handel’s ‘Orlando,’ the magic is in the music

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In Handel’s ‘Orlando,’ the magic is in the music

NEW YORK - 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 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.

But in this concert performance, the spells and transformations were left to the imagination - and the elaborate hand and facial gestures supplied by German bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich as Zoroastro. His tall figure and long mane of steel-gray hair made him the perfect embodiment of an all-powerful wizard, sang with a booming tone when the role didn’t go too low. He may have overdone the mugging, but it was certainly an animated performance.

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