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OPERA REVIEW

Eloquent 'Orlando' starts Emmanuel's nod to Handel

Once upon a time, in those benighted early days of the Handel revival, the opera "Orlando" was a relatively obscure work. Local audiences got an early taste of its magnificent music in 1981-82, when the American Repertory Theatre staged a production by the maverick, avant-garde director Peter Sellars, then still an undergraduate at Harvard. The first two acts were set at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Act three took place on planet Mars. Craig Smith, the founder and artistic director of Emmanuel Music, was the conductor.

In the intervening years Handel's fortunes have soared and his psychologically astute, musically ravishing operas have poured steadily onto stage and disc. Riding the wave of Handel popularity that they helped to create, Smith and his respected collective of musicians returned to "Orlando" on Saturday night with an eloquent and humane concert performance in Emmanuel Church. It was a promising start to Emmanuel's season-long survey of Handel's three "Ariosto" operas, the works inspired by Ariosto's sweeping epic "Orlando Furioso." ("Ariodante" and "Alcina" are still to come.)

In Handel's version, the young knight Orlando strays from his path of reason and knightly heroism to quest after love, only to find himself hopelessly lost in a thicket of crisscrossing attractions and jealousies that sends him over the edge. The score is full of enormously inventive and often unsettling music. Mercurial arias and recitatives fly through like fast-moving storm fronts, quaking with emotional intensity one moment and dispersing just as quickly to reveal a warm and radiant sun.

The cast on Saturday was mostly strong, though the three women generally outshined the men. Kendra Colton was fluid, intelligent, and exacting as the shepherdess Dorinda, who loves the African prince Medoro. Krista River sang Medoro with gracious phrasing and a lovely bloom to her voice. Dominique Labelle's rich and substantial soprano made for a rewarding Angelica, a queen who is also in love with Medoro. Jeffrey Gall, who sang Orlando in the original Sellars production, returned in the title role. He had many moments of impressive athleticism and tonal beauty, but his singing overall was somewhat uneven. The young bass-baritone Michael Callas sang the role of the magician Zoroastro with a strong, versatile voice but he had ample room to grow in matters of pitch, diction, and phrasing.

For his part, Smith drew a refined, delicately inflected performance from the Emmanuel musicians; the sublime Act I vocal trio and the beautiful, plaintive viola solo in Act III were both highlights. The austere church was a far cry from Sellars's Cape Canaveral, but the music's transporting power still came across. Interstellar travel does not always require leaving one's pew.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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