In an effort to find suitable vehicles for superstar mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne late in her career, Lyric Opera gave her a couple of male roles that in the eighteenth century were sung by superstar castratos, i.e., male singers whose testicles were removed before puberty to preserve a high voice but who developed an adult technique to propel their sound. (Talk about the high price of fame, but I digress.) One was Rossini’s “Tancredi,” the other was Handel’s “Orlando,” but both were jealous military conquerors, well, you get the general idea. That 1986 production also featured countertenor Jeffrey Gall and sopranos June Anderson and Gianna Rolandi (today Mrs. Sir Andrew Davis and director of Lyric’s Ryan Center) in a hopelessly mismatched vocal affair that left Handel the real loser. These days, it’s possible to assemble not one, but two countertenors for a production, as Chicago Opera Theater has done for its current production (Tim Mead and David Trudgen) and two sopranos who have range, power and even some eighteenth-century technique (Kate Mangiameli and Andriana Chuchman). The problem comes in when a seasoned Handel singer such as Mead who can sing trills and ornaments in an authentic style, shares the stage with cast members who simply do not have the vocal technique needed to sing this music. Twenty years ago, glossing over Handel’s rapid and florid passages like a car engine was deemed acceptable, but no longer. This is the kind of singing that gave Handel a bad reputation in modern times to begin with, and the music is not well served when the notes are blurred. Even so, there is much to recommend this production, especially director Justin Way’s film-noir conception, which at one point had Orlando choking an enemy in rhythm to his own trills and which manages to streamline the complex storyline. Raymond Leppard, one of the genre’s earliest early music pioneers, kept things moving along from the pit with grace and balance, and his own innovative harpsichord playing—sometimes augmented by organ along with the continuo—was some of the most original Handel accompaniment we have heard here. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Harris Theater for Music & Dance, 205 E. Randolph, (312)334-7777. This production is now closed.