At some point, Baroque opera acquired a sticky reputation for being tedious. Maybe it was the works’ length, or the sometimes-creaky plots; then again, was it the powdered wigs? Regardless, it seems Boston Early Music Festival’s main-stage operas are increasingly devoted to vanquishing that stereotype once and for all.
For the North American premiere of Agostino Steffani’s “Orlando generoso” on Sunday afternoon at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, the team (headed up by music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and stage director Gilbert Blin) pulled out every trick from its bulging bag, determined to entertain.
Entertain it did, sometimes to excess. The show boasts a cast of dynamic singing actors, a versatile battalion of dancers, fantastical scenery, opulent costumes courtesy of retiring longtime designer Anna Watkins, and enough bawdy sight gags to shake a shepherdess’s crook at. There are even flying machines, with all their attending complications; a few minutes into Sunday’s performance, when a hippogriff failed to appear on cue, tenor Zachary Wilder and soprano Emoke Baráth improvised to amuse the audience.
The performance was the first musical event at this year’s festival, which has the theme “Dreams & Madness.” Plenty of both feature in “Orlando.” It’s based on the Italian epic “Orlando furioso,” which one essay in the festival’s door-stopping program book describes as the “Star Wars” of its time; everybody knew the characters and what they represented. To sum up the opera’s main plot: Orlando is supposed to be fighting in Charlemagne’s service, but he’s moping around Cathay, a.k.a. China, because he’s consumed by infatuation with the princess Angelica (she’s not interested) instead of desire for glory.
It took a few scenes for BEMF veteran tenor Aaron Sheehan to settle into the title role’s fiendishly virtuosic music, but the character’s many mad scenes and final moment of revelation were all sung and acted to the hilt. The cast hasn’t a weak link, but Baráth was a standout, dispensing machine-gun melismas with ease as the warrior princess Bradamante. Equally memorable was Wilder, who looked and sounded like he was having the time of his life as the thief-clown Brunello.
BEMF star soprano Amanda Forsythe shone brightly as Angelica, while Kacper Szelazek’s lissome countertenor voice animated the role of Medoro, her faithful consort. The conductorless pit orchestra, anchored by an astute continuo section and concertmaster Robert Mealy, served the music with vigor.
Most of the opera’s excess was in Blin’s busy staging. There was almost never only singing happening onstage. Sometimes, as during the many recitatives, this handily moved the action along, but in other instances, it was a distraction. Forsythe’s stunning lament in the second act was the emotional linchpin of the opera, and Wilder dancing behind her pulled attention away. After almost four hours, the end result was the operatic version of a food coma; it was delicious, but it might have been more satisfying if there werea little less of it.
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival. At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sunday (repeats through June 16).