Erin MorleyToo rarely does a moment arrive during an opera or a concert when a great piece of music meets an inspired artist: time stands still and you experience Nirvana. Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall two remarkable slices of soprano-heaven were served up, first by Carolyn Sampson and then by Erin Morley, during the second act of Handel’s Orlando. Their transcendent pair of arias elevated an uneven performance of one of Handel’s most challenging operas by The English Concert. 

During the 1730s Handel composed three magnificent works based on Ariosto’s early 16th-century epic Orlando Furioso and conductor Harry Bicket, his English Concert and Carnegie Hall have been working their way through them. Alcina with Joyce Di Donato arrived in October 2014 and the American mezzo will return as Ariodante in April 2017. But Sunday marked the return of Orlando to 57th Street for the first time since 1984, and its previous hero Marilyn Horne was in attendance to hear English countertenor Iestyn Davies tackle the great title role written for the castrato Senesino.

The opera is probably best known for its protagonist’s wild mad scene which closes the second act; in it, Handel eschews his usual da capo form and guides Orlando through a number of frenzied sections that vividly convey the disintegration of a tortured mind. Though Davies threw through himself into that scene, he failed to invite the “fear and pity” expected from tragic heroes. Rather than mad, Davies seemed at most perturbed.

Orlando requires a fierce dramatic commitment and vocal bravura that lie outside the otherwise sterling qualities of England’s best countertenor. Although he has taken on big seria roles like Rinaldo before, Davies excels instead at the more plaintive, less florid music of the oratorios. His recent recording of some of the English arias is superb, and his portrayal of David in the recent Barrie Kosky production of Saul at the Glyndebourne Festival was remarkable.

In Orlando’s quieter moments, like his opening arioso “Stimulato dalla gloria” and his sublime “Già l’ebro mio ciglio” accompanied by a pair of violas d’amore, Davies was mightily impressive and quite moving. However, “Non fu già” where Orlando compares himself to Hercules and Achilles lacked swagger, and the big florid showpieces particularly “Fammi combattere” and “Ah! Stigie larve!” exposed his labored coloratura.

It’s not that countertenors are intrinsically unsuited to the role; I have heard both Bejun Mehta (at both New York City Opera and Covent Garden) and Drew Minter (as recently as last year) give forceful portrayals of Orlando, but Davies’s smallish, soft-grained voice lacks the forceful middle-register to conquer this low-lying challenge. When Sasha Cooke arrived as Medoro, her arrestingly rich contralto gave some idea what we were missing in Davies. Cooke, absent from the New York opera scene for a while, sang forcefully if without the ideal poetic repose for her ravishing “Verdi allori.”

We also don’t see nearly enough locally of bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen who proved a splendid Zoroastro, the magician who sets things right in the end. Most singers tackling Handel’s challenging bass roles lack either the vocal richness or the necessary agility but Ketelsen provided both. Although his “Sorge infausto” may have not risen to the superb achievement of his earlier two arias, it was all in all some of the best Handel singing I’ve heard from a bass since Samuel Ramey’s 1984 Chicago Argante in Rinaldo.

Unexpectedly, it was its two sopranos who made this Orlando truly special. For the past fifteen years, Sampson has one of the most accomplished baroque singers on the scene. She appears only occasionally in New York and although she performed Esther in 2002 and some arias with the Philharmonia Baroque at Zankel in 2009, Orlando was her first local Handel opera. As the comically love-sick shepherdess Dorinda, Sampson started out at less than her considerable best. Much of the first act seemed to lie a bit low for her shining soprano, and her quick vibrato was unusually prominent.

But in the second act’s opening arioso “Quando spieghi I tuoi tormenti” where Dorinda compares her amorous sighing to the warbling of the nightingale, Sampson sounded transformed. Her subsequent aria, the spellbinding “Se mi rivolgo al prato,” became one of those indelible, unforgettable moments where an entire audience almost stopped breathing. Most of her earlier music has been light-hearted, but here Handel plumbs the depths of her passion as she describes how all of nature reminds her only of Medoro. Sampson exquisitely mined the aria’s aching throes and for those too-brief minutes Dorinda broke our hearts.

While Sampson is a Handel veteran, Angelica was American soprano Morley’s first Handel role. As the Queen of Cathay whose rejection of Orlando sends him into an emotional tailspin, she was regal and elegant with just a hint of fearful vulnerability. She and Sampson share an attractive fast vibrato and might have easily switched roles, but Sampson wisely emphasized Dorinda’s girlish befuddlement while Morley took a bemused quasi-maternal interest in the bewildered shepherdess during that beguiling trio that concludes the first act.

A half-hour after Sampson’s silvery “Se mi rivolgo al prato,” it was Morley’s turn to bewitch and move us. Her sparkling “Non potrà” was mightily impressive but “Verdi piante” which immediately followed was radiant, spun out on seemingly endless breath. As much as Orlando is an opera of madness, it is about an idealized pastoral world which that madness threatens. Medoro and Angelica must flee their “Eden” and Handel gives each a moving farewell: Medoro has “Verdi allori” which resembles Ruggiero’s more famous “Verdi prati” in Alcina; both are simple and restrained.

“Verdi piante,” Angelica’s wistful benediction, is both more complex and touching and Morley, like the marvelous Lynne Dawson whom I heard perform it in 1989 at the former Avery Fisher Hall, made it the indelible musical highlight of the afternoon. When Metastasio wrote his Orlando libretto in 1720 for Porpora, he called it L’Angelica and after those golden Morley moments, one wanted to rename Handel’s work that too.

I was reminded of the first time I heard Morley—in 2007 at Juilliard Opera in Mozart’s La Finta Giardinera as an entrancing Sandrina. Happily that portrayal has been recently captured on a fine video from Lille,but why haven’t we yet heard her Pamina or Ilia? While Morley maintains a diverse repertoire with lots of Rosenkavalier Sophies upcoming in Paris, Boston and the Met and her first Lucia di Lammermoor due in June in Nancy, this angelic Angelica suggested again that 18th century music suits her sweetly sumptuous coloratura soprano admirably. Let’s hope Iphis in Jephtha or perhaps a Semele or even a Cleopatra figure in her future.

As with their three recent Handel appearances at Carnegie, Bicket and his band produced well-manicured baroque opera—beautifully if blandly performed but no surprises allowed! For her searing Alcina Di Donato through the sheer force of her searching musical imagination was able to break through this overly-decorous approach, but Orlando’s quintet was perhaps less daring. However, much of the vocal ornamentation was surprisingly off-filter. Were these ill-considered additions, particularly to Sampson’s “Amore è qual vento,” the singers’s inventions or Bicket’s?

Next year’s English Concert Ariodante may be quite special as Di Donato will joined by the unpredictable but exciting Sonia Prina and the lovely Joélle Harvey. In the meantime Davies returns to more congenial Handel next month when he appears as David opposite Harvey in Saul with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society.

Photo of Erin Morley by Carlo Allemano.