United Kingdom Handel, Orlando: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor), Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 27.9.2015 (GPu)
Orlando: Lawrence Zazzo
Angelica: Rebecca Evans
Dorinda: Fflur Wyn
Medoro: Robin Blaze
Zoroastro: Daniel Grice
Additional Performers: Helen Greenaway, Nicola Morgan, Jack O’Kelly, Sarah Pope, Monika Sawa, Ben Tinniswood
Director: Harry Fehr
Designer: Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Designer: Anna Watson
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding
As befits an opera which draws its materials from Ariosto’s richly fantastic romantic epic Orlando Furioso (the first of three Handel operas drawn from this source), Orlando is thoroughly imbued with the spirit of extravagance. It invites (perhaps we should say demands) extravagant vocal display from its singers; it revels in extravagant stage effects.
Orlando Furioso is peopled by supremely brave warriors and beautiful queens, magicians and sorceresses, harpies and ghosts; its ‘props’ include magic horns, weapons and armour, as well as flying horses. But for all its extravagance of invention and imagination, Ariosto’s poem is also full of its author’s very perceptive vision of human nature, of human strengths and weaknesses.
Handel’s Orlando is a match for Ariosto’s poem when it comes to spectacularly imagined scenes. Take, for example, the opening stage direction in the printed libretto (I quote it from the text given in Winton Dean’s Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 (2006): “Night. A Country with a Mountain in Prospect; Atlas, on the Summit of the Mountain, sustaining the Heavens on his Shoulders: Several Genii at the Foot of the Mountain: Zoroaster leaning on a Stone, and contemplating the Motions of the Stars“. Later in the opera there are some spectacular scenes of magic and transformation, as when, in Act III, Zoroastro restores Orlando’s sanity Zoroastro “makes a signal with his Wand, and four Genii in the Air accompany an Eagle with a golden Vessel in his Beak. Zoroaster receives it, and then the Eagle and the Genii fly through the Air“. Yet, like Ariosto, Handel doesn’t neglect the reality of his character’s human emotions. His musical humanity was not inhibited or abandoned in the face of such spectacle, any more than Mozart’s was in dealing with the fantasy world of Emanuel Schikaneder in writing The Magic Flute.
What is a modern operatic director to do with all this? There are obvious difficulties in any attempt to reproduce the spectacle specified in the libretto – financial, technical, and the assumed taste of a modern audience (most modern directors are perhaps still mindful of such eighteenth-century animadversions on the form as those of Lord Chesterfield (“Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears”) or Dr. Johnson’s definition of opera (“An exotic and irrational entertainment”) or, indeed, Voltaire (“One goes to see a tragedy to be moved, to the opera one goes either for want of any other interest or to facilitate digestion”), and are keen to avoid leaving themselves open to any such charges. But an Orlando which resolutely avoids any such spectacle is, inescapably, an impoverishment of a work which operates on many levels and whose meaning exists, to some extent, in the simultaneous presence (and the tension between) of such levels and dimensions – the spectacular, the emotional, the moral, the psychological and much else.
This production by Harry Fehr (first staged in 2011 by Scottish Opera) eschews all Baroque or pseudo-Baroque spectacle and the open air setting of Handel’s opera (in which every scene takes place outside), choosing to set the action in what I take to be a private clinic in 1940’s London (now every scene takes place inside though we do get glimpses of the clinic’s gardens). Orlando, in Ariosto and Handel, the Count of Anglante, Paladin of France and nephew of Charlemagne, is now an RAF pilot traumatised by his wartime experiences and by the conflicting demands of duty and love; Angelica, originally daughter of Galafron, Emperor of Cathay, is now a rich socialite; Dorinda a shepherdess in Handel’s libretto, but absent from Ariosto’s poem, has become a nurse in the clinic; Zoroastro has become a very self-confident psychiatrist who is sure of his ability to manipulate human emotions. The mountains and the heavens, Atlas and the Genii of the opening scene are replaced by a ward in the clinic, several nurses, and Orlando on an operating table with electrodes attached to his head. Zoroaster no longer observes the movement of the stars; he studies, rather, the pattern of electrical activity in Orlando’s brain on a huge encephalographic readout (apparently visible through the windows of the ward?). In Act III Zoroaster’s most dramatically memorable treatment of Orlando takes the form, not of a magical potion in a golden vessel delivered by an eagle, but of electric shock treatment (electroconvulsive therapy). The transposition of the opera’s world to the 1940s is well handled and, on its own terms, makes for largely effective theatre, the chosen theatrical idiom being consistent and sustained, despite a few clashes with the words sung (especially when characters sing so forcefully of the natural beauty of their surroundings and certainly makes it easier for the audience to focus on the mental and emotional conditions of the characters. But, as I have suggested already, a good deal is also lost in the process. (The directorial concept is not an entirely new one: in 2007 Jens Daniel Herzog’s production of Orlando for Zurich Opera – available on DVD – set the work in a First World War sanatorium).
Both Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Handel’s Orlando exist in a kind of parodic relationship with the conventions of medieval romance (by ‘parodic’ I don’t mean that they simply make fun of the earlier form, but rather that, like the ‘parody’ masses of, say Josquin des Prez and Palestrina, they make serious use of the materials and conventions of that earlier genre in a different context. If Harry Fehr’s production has a ‘parodic’ original it is perhaps the hospital drama so common on TV!
To remind us (as if it were necessary), that the conflict between love and duty is a recurrent phenomenon and takes many forms, we are treated to fleeting back-projections of Edward VII and Mrs. Simpson.
Musically the performance was wholly acceptable, though without too much of the vocal bravura that, I suspect, Handel’s original audience would have expected. In the title role, Lawrence Zazzo displayed more tonal variety and expressivity than most contemporary countertenors are capable of, and these vocal resources were generally deployed to good effect. Physically Zazzo carried himself well on stage and plausibly looked the part of the heroic fighter pilot. His limitations were as an actor. The power and subtlety of his singing were too often let down by his reliance on a limited and repetitively employed rhetoric of physical gesture. Oddly, I think I would have found his performance more moving, more emotionally engaging, had I simply heard it on CD, rather than seen it on stage. As his beloved Angelica, Rebecca Evans (always an accomplished Handelian) seemed to inhabit her role more completely than any other member of the cast. She sang beautifully (especially in her ‘Verdi piante’ and in her duets with both Orlando and Medoro) and presented a confident air of moneyed superiority and vain self-regard (more than once renovating her make-up in situations when one might have expected a character of less emotional shallowness to be too disturbed to be worried about such matters). After a slightly hesitant start, Fflur Wyn, as Dorinda, was soon in impressive voice, revelling in Handel’s music with appropriate flair and making me care more about her character’s sufferings than I have on any previous encounters with the opera. Robin Blaze’s Medoro (dramatically-speaking a rather thankless role) was sung very decently, but he was rather stiff as a stage presence (and not just because of the walking stick and limp which the production required of him throughout). Daniel Grice sung with a sure technique and interpreted the role of Zoroastro with fitting authority, though being a baritone rather than a bass (the role was first performed by the Venetian bass Antonio Montagna) his voice contrasted a little less strikingly with the high voices of the other four soloists than perhaps it should have done.
Only a few members of the WNO chorus were required to take to the stage, and that largely in silent roles. But the Orchestra of WNO, reduced in size, lived up to the very high standards it has set for itself in the last few years, this time under the direction of Baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini (who, incidentally, shares his first name with one of the other major characters of Ariosto’s poem, Rinaldo, Count of Montalbano and cousin to Orlando). Perhaps a specialised baroque orchestra playing period instruments, might have produced a more ‘authentic’ sound, but the company’s own orchestra, with continuo provided by theorbo and harpsichord, supplied, under Alessandrini’s direction, sensitive and often vivacious support to the singers.
Yet, for all the positives, this was a production which, at least on this particular night, never quite caught fire.