By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 31, 2006

The most notorious episode is the orgy before the Golden Calf, the idol Aron invented to appease the growing doubts of the Hebrews, doubts about an invisible God that Schoenberg treats quite satirically. (They’re more Philistines than Jews.) This gloriously sleazy music is like the soundtrack of a Hollywood Biblical epic. In fact, Hollywood stole shamelessly from Schoenberg, who lived there, right across the street from Shirley Temple!

A friend suggested afterward that Sir John Tomlinson’s rich bass was too resonant for the tongue-tied Moses and Philip Langridge’s dry tenor wasn’t oily enough for smarmy snake-oil salesman Aron. But both artists — who have, along with the powerful bass Sergei Kopchack (the Priest), sung these roles under Levine at the Met — made intense and subtle impressions, as did Jennifer Welch-Babidge, Mark Schowalter, Jessica Tarnish, and such Boston familiars as Sanford Sylvan (talk about luxury casting), David Kravitz, William Hite, Janna Baty, and Michelle Johnson.

I would have loved to hear another performance, but only two were scheduled (Schoenberg is a hard sell), and the second one Saturday conflicted with another musical event I wouldn’t have missed for the world: Emmanuel Music’s revival of Handel’s Orlando. Led by Craig Smith in 1979, Emmanuel’s first shot at this transcendent and form-changing work was the first complete American performance, and it triggered a seismic change in the history of opera. Peter Sellars was in the audience, and hearing this music made him want to see Handel on stage. Two years later, with an almost identical ensemble of singers and players, the Sellars/Smith production of Orlando, set at Cape Canaveral (isn’t Orlando in Florida?), opened for an unprecedented run of 38 performances at the American Repertory Theatre. In between the two Orlandos came Sellars’s Monadnock Music Don Giovanni, for which Smith was vocal coach, and, with the Cantata Singers, the Sellars/Smith collaboration on Handel’s oratorio Saul. Both the trend of finding contemporary images for 18th-century opera and the long-overdue renewal of interest in staging Handel have continued unabated and worldwide.

On Saturday, Orlando was back at Emmanuel Church, inaugurating a series (dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) of Handel’s great operas based on Orlando furioso (“Mad Roland”), the 16th-century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto’s romantic epic. (The other two are Ariodante, January 27, and Alcina, April 21.) And with its magical plot and endlessly inspired music, it was still marvelous.

No conductor alive today leads Handel with more gravity, rhythmic punch, and sense of melodic contour than Smith. You could hear these qualities in the opening bars of the overture, and they continued non-stop for nearly three and a half hours. The orchestra was as wonderful as ever, with expressive continuo work by Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), Thomas Stephenson (bassoon), Michael Beattie (harpsichord and organ), and bassist Susan Hagen. Mary Ruth Ray and Betty Hauck played a heart-easing viola cadenza composed by Smith to end the aria in which the warrior Orlando, driven mad by his unrequited love for the princess Angelica, finally falls into a state of calm sleep. Oboist Peggy Pearson played recorder as well, as she had done with the Emmanuel Orchestra in 1979.

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