This review cannot be definitive as I am far from being an expert on Baroque opera. But I have long loved the recording of this opera, 'Orlando Furioso,' made many years ago, but drastically cut, by Claudio Scimone with the Solisti Veneti and featuring the almost superhuman singing of Marilyn Horne as Orlando. Add to that the Angelica of Victoria de los Angeles, Lucia Valentini-Terrani as Alcina, and Sesto Bruscantini as Ruggiero and you have a nigh-unbeatable combination. But this set not only gives us an uncut version of Vivaldi's opera (with some additions suggested by musicologist Frédéric Delaméa, additions which fill in gaps in the original materials from which this performance was produced), it features, amazingly, voices that are fully the equal of those in the fabled Scimone recording. Some roles have been re-assigned: Ruggiero is sung by a counter-tenor here (as opposed to Bruscantini's baritone); Medoro is sung by a mezzo, rather than a tenor.
One quibble I have about the Horne performance is that she made the role of Orlando, with all its vocal gymnastics, almost a caricature (forgive me, Horne fans! I'm one, too, after all). In the present recording Canadian mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux not only sings as well as Horne, but limns the character with greater sensitivity. Her ornamentation is not quite as spectacular, but it's also not as, how shall I say?, show-offy. And the ornaments are more in keeping with practice of 1727 when the opera was premièred, I believe. Lemieux is fully capable of Horne's acrobatics, so it's not a matter of lack of technique, it's more a matter of (gasp!) taste. A larger question arises about the replacement of the role of Ruggiero sung by a baritone (Bruscantini) with a counter-tenor (the sweet-voiced Philippe Jarrousky). In fact, though, at the first performance Ruggiero was sung by a mezzo who specialized in pants roles, so perhaps using a counter-tenor is more appropriate. In any event, Jarrousky is superb, bringing an appropriate delicacy to the role. Angelica, sung ravishingly by the Argentine soprano Veronica Cangemi, does not make us forget the late, beloved Victoria de los Angeles, but her performance does not suffer in comparison either. Jennifer Larmore has a complete triumph in her performance of Alcina which is, I feel, actually superior to that of Valentini-Terrani.
Instrumental support by Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus is lively, sensitive and brilliant. Special mention must be made of the lovely flute obbligato in Ruggiero's aria, 'Sol da te, mio dolce amore,' played radiantly by Jean-Marc Goujon. Supporting roles are also well sung, in some instances better than on the Scimone set. I think this set heralds the real arrival of Marie-Nicole Lemieux on the international scene, at least on records. She has made some wonderful CDs, mostly on smaller labels; I raved about her recording with Tafelmusik on Analekta but was less taken with her Brahms lieder recital on the same label. I suspect this recording will bring her appropriate acclaim.
Strongly recommended for lovers of superb singing.
3CDs: 181 mins