Bejun Mehta and William Christie in an Outstanding Orlando

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Handel, Orlando: Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich, William Christie (conductor), Soloists, Zurich Opera 13.5.16. (JR)

Producer: Jens-Daniel Herzog
Sets and costumes: Mathis Neidhadrt
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann
Dramaturgy: Claudia Blersch

Orlando: Bejun Mehta
Angelica: Julie Fuchs
Medora: Delphine Galou
Dorinda: Deanna Breiwick
Zoroastro:  Scott Connor

Ludovico Ariosto wrote his epic Renaissance poem “Orlando furioso” (The Frenzy of Orlando) in 1532. Many composers used its material as a basis for a musical work and Handel used it two hundred years later in no fewer than three of his best-known operas, Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina. In Orlando the plot centres round Orlando, a war hero in Charlemagne’s army, and his unrequited love for Princess Angelica; but she is in love with another man, Medoro. This drives him mad, but he is saved by the magician Zoroastro who rescues Angelica from Orlando’s lunacy (with the improbable help, in this production, of a retracting knife) and restores Orlando’s sanity. Just to add complication to an otherwise rather facile plot, a shepherdess, Dorinda, also manages to fall in love with Orlando.

Jens-Daniel Herzog conceived this production when it premièred in Zurich ten years ago; then, as now in this revival, William Christie conducts. Herzog sets the action in a sanatorium for the mentally ill, at the time of World War I. I am beginning to lose track of how many opera productions I have seen set in lunatic asylums and my heart does tend to sink each time. They are grey, grim, depressing places in real life and not much more fun on stage. In this opera at least Orlando does go mad, so it fits, and Herzog injects sufficient comedy to lift the spirits. The clever but rather drab set is an interplay of sliding walls, some with doors on the end of them, and a fold-away bed for the sex scenes.

The singers are all of a very high standard. Bejun Mehta was one of America’s finest boy trebles and even came to Leonard Bernstein’s attention. His father was a Professor of piano and is a cousin of Zubin Mehta. But it was Marilyn Horne who sponsored him, after his voice broke, allowing him to forget trying to be an above average baritone and become a countertenor. He is now generally recognised as one of the world’s leading countertenors and he did not disappoint. The part of Orlando was originally written by Handel for an alto castrato; it is now one of Mehta’s principal roles. Sometimes the sound of a countertenor can make one wince: but Mehta’s tone is smooth and sounds utterly natural. On top of that he is blessed with clear diction, sound intonation and fine coloratura and acting skills. A consummate artist.

Julie Fuchs’s soprano is rich and warm, her acting feisty. I found, on occasion, her breathing a little on the heavy side. Deanna Breiwick’s attractive soprano sparkled throughout, she too mastered the trills and leaps which Handel thrust in her path; she was a constant delight. Medoro is a trouser role, a contralto in trousers (to match the witty array of trousers hung out to dry on the asylum’s washing lines). French contralto Delphine Galou proved a most accomplished singer, cutting a real dash in a stylish blue suit; later on she donned motorcycle gear.

The action occasionally bordered on the sexually explicit, though never distastefully so. Handel’s musical depiction of an ejaculation, sung and acted wittily by Galou, was comically portrayed.

Scott Conner is a young American bass, garnering much positive critical review. His very bottom notes were a glory, to which he added a nice comic touch. His middle range blooms, his top notes can, however, be a mite stretched. As he matures, he should increase in volume.

William Christie towered over the period orchestra and lavished attention on every note of this joyous score, dancing through the arias. The Overture was pure fizz; his tempi were brisk throughout. He accompanied the recitatives from the harpsichord. The orchestra was quite large and on occasion could drown out a voice. The woodwind (baroque oboes and recorders) stood out, as much for their playing as their swaying; the theorbo was a visual and acoustic delight too.

At the end no-one could fail to notice Christie’s trade-mark bright red socks peering above his black shiny half-shoes; he and Mehta made this an Orlando to treasure.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment