Updating Madness in Handel’s Orlando Proves Problematical for WNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Orlando:  Soloists, and reduced Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Renaldo Alessandrini (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 28.10.2015. (RJF)

ORLAND_WNO, Orlando; Lawrence Zazzo, Angelica; Rebecca Evans, Medoro; Robin Blaze, Dorinda; Fflur Wyn, Zoroastro; Daniel Grice,
WNO’s Orlando (c) Bill Cooper

Handel, Orlando (Opera in three acts 1733)


Orlando: Lawrence Zazzo
Angelica: Rebecca Evans
Dorinda: Fflur Wyn
Medoro: Robin Blaze
Zoroastro: Daniel Grice
Additional Performers, members of WNO chorus: 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

Throughout the first couple of centuries of operatic creations, composers were constrained as to choice of subject by decisions of censors or by Catholic Church forbiddances. The latter restrictions allowed no stage performances during Lent, even in the time of Rossini and Donizetti unless they were on religious subjects. The Catholic Church of the time also forbade female choristers in church so determining the castration of promising young boys with high voices. The municipal and state censors were still having their say well into Verdi’s middle period, the time of Ballo in Maschera and beyond the unification of Italy in 1860. These factors determined the choice made by composers as to the subject of any commissions that came their way. Writing in the first decades of the eighteenth century Handel had to tread very carefully, hence his recourse to safe historical sources for his libretti. Three of his operas were based on Aristo’s 16th century epic poem Orlando Furioso, (Mad Orlando) premiered in London in 1733, the subject fitting perfectly with WNOs theme of madness in this autumn 2015 season.

As has been noted by one of the UK’s most eminent music critics it is seemingly impossible in the present day to see a Handel opera in period costume and setting. This production that originated with Scottish Opera is no exception. The setting is a psychiatric hospital that on the basis of the nurses and Orlando’s looks to be during the Second World War. Orlando is a fighter pilot who has opted for love over duty. As the first scene opens he is to be seen in a hospital operating theatre in receipt of electro-convulsive therapy seemingly aimed to knock him back into heroic mode whilst forgetting, or even realizing that such treatment left the patient with a severe headache for some days after.  The flexible revolving set regularly proves ideal becoming the entrance to or ward in the hospital, whilst filmed projections were little value in clarifying what was happening. However, with the titles fully operational the audience was better able to follow the plot that the evening before.

Zoroastro, the psychiatrist here, is strongly sung and acted by Daniel Grice with the two other males being taken by counter tenors, unusual to say the least. Both are adequate as both singers and actors with Lawrence Zazzo in the title role managing to create a realistic character via his variety of tone along with somewhat limited acting. As his older rival, if that is the word, for the love of Angelica, Robin Blaze sings the role of Medoro. It is a personal predilection as to preferring these roles en travesty sung by rich toned mezzos sopranos who often inhabit the role somewhat more realistically. This may be the function of the manner of vocal production that has to be adopted by counter tenors. Fflur Wyn, as Dorinda, and Rebecca Evans as Angelica portrayed the conflicts of love in this performance. The rich variety and strength of their singing, allied in both cases to convincing acting, were highlights of the evening.

On the rostrum baroque specialist Renaldo Alessandrini made the reduced orchestra, supplemented by some strings, all pitching at 440, along with a theorbo and harpsichord continuo, sound like a genuine baroque ensemble – a commendable achievement.

Robert J Farr

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