Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Reason destroyed by love": Handel's Orlando

Christina Gansch (Dorinda) and Sasha Cooke (Orlando) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

Handel's Orlando (1733) is an opera of firsts and lasts. It was the first time Handel had turned to Ludovico Ariosto's 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso for source material. The poem relates the martial and amorous adventures of knights-errant during the reign of Charlemagne (who ruled from 768 to 814 CE). Handel must have thought that parts of the poem were readily reworked for operatic purposes, for he would draw from the same source for two later masterpieces, Ariodante and Alcina (both in 1735).

Title page of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, translated by Sir John Harington (1634). Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

Orlando is also musically innovative: characters interrupt, comment on or complete each other's arias, the first act ends in a unusual two-versus-one trio, and there is an extended mad scene for Orlando which uses bizarre time signatures to suggest his unhinged mental state. Jane Glover writes that this scene employs the meter of 5/8 "for the first time in music history" [1].

But Orlando is also the last opera that Handel's star castrato Senesino would perform for him; it thus marks the destruction (in its then-current form) of Handel's opera company.

In January 1733, as the opera was being rehearsed, Senesino was negotiating to join a new company that was being set up to rival Handel's. Senesino was one of the best (and best-paid) singers in the world. Since 1720 he had sung leading male roles in twenty-three operas for Handel, including the title role in Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724) and Bertarido in Rodelina (1725).

Portrait of Senesino by Alexander van Aken, after Thomas Hudson (1735). Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

But he and Handel had a notably testy relationship, and perhaps being asked to sing in 5/8 time was the final straw. At the end of the 1733 season Senesino defected to the new company, taking with him all of Handel's other singers except his prima donna, Anna Maria Strada del Pò. Handel would have to rebuild his company virtually from scratch.

Anna Maria Strada by Johannes Verelst, 1732. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The story of Orlando is relatively straightforward, especially for a Baroque opera. Orlando withdraws from battle because he has fallen in love with Angelica. Meanwhile Angelica is in love with another man, the wounded warrior Medoro. Medoro is also loved by Dorinda, who has nursed him back to health. When Dorinda discovers that Medoro loves Angelica, she is inconsolable; when Orlando discovers that Angelica loves Medoro, he begins raving and threatens to kill her. Zoroastro intervenes and uses his magic powers to return Orlando to his senses. Orlando and Dorinda accept the betrothal of Angelica and Medoro, and there is a final chorus praising both love and valor.

Although the story is simple it is full of emotional moments between the characters, and the opera contains some of Handel's most affecting music. Here is Dorinda's "Se mi rivolgo al prato" ("If I wander in the meadows"), an aria of yearning for Medoro after she has discovered his feelings for Angelica:

(Emma Kirkby with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood.)

The San Francisco Opera production directed by Harry Fehr sets the opera at the height of the London Blitz in the fall of 1940. Orlando and Medoro are patients at a military hospital, Zoroastro is the hospital's medical director, Dorinda is a nurse there, and Angelica is an American woman living in Britain. It's a clever conceit, suggesting that Orlando's reluctance to return to war is at least partly due to what then would have been called shellshock.

There are also some pointed historical parallels: Orlando is shown a slide show featuring the abdication of King Edward VIII and (together with Wallis Simpson) his meeting with Hitler as examples of, as Fehr puts it in his program note, "how love leads to a dereliction of duty." What works most neatly of all is the change of Dorinda from Ariosto's nurturing shepherdess to a uniformed staff nurse at the hospital. The World War II setting also enables Fehr and production designer Yannis Thavoris to strikingly evoke David Lean and Noël Coward's masterpiece of conflicted love, Brief Encounter (1945).

Heidi Stober (Angelica) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

But the libretto calls for the action to take place in a forest, and confining the characters to a hospital renders much of the action nonsensical. Fehr mentions in his program note that a few words in the libretto were changed to reduce the conflict between what the characters sing and what we see onstage, but the problem goes deeper than just a few words. Angelica and Medoro make the urgent resolution at the end of the first act to flee to escape Orlando's wrath, but instead of simply walking out the front door of the hospital they inexplicably linger in the lobby for the rest of the opera. Orlando, although he is a raving madman and has attacked Angelica, seems to have free run of the building (and the orderlies always seem to be five minutes behind him). In a forest setting the inability of Angelica and Medoro to escape the pursuing Orlando (who is, after all, the greatest knight in Christendom) would not require suspension of disbelief.

Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro), Sasha Cooke (Orlando) and Heidi Stober (Angelica) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

Fehr also misses or mishandles many directorial opportunities. There was a lot of "stand and deliver" singing in this production; although that is infinitely preferable to disrupting arias with distracting, irrelevant business, there were missed opportunities for meaningful interaction between the characters. Where he did give the singers things to do, his direction was sometimes puzzling. During her Act II aria "Non potra dirmi ingrata" (He will not call me ungrateful), Angelica opens and closes her luggage, checks her makeup and powders her nose—hardly the actions of someone fleeing a lunatic in desperate fear for her life.

Video projections (designed by Andrzej Goulding) were a potentially interesting way of representing Orlando's fevered hallucinations, and they included a nice (if anachronistic) Vertigo homage—another story about obsessive, and hopeless, love. But not only were the projections distracting (as they inevitably are), they were used inconsistently. Sometimes they seemed to represent Orlando's thoughts, but at others (as when they showed the explosions of a German bombing attack) they seemed to portray the diegetic reality of the characters.

Despite the production's occasional shortfalls the cast acquitted themselves more than honorably. As Orlando, Sasha Cooke offered a lovely, rounded mezzo-soprano. Orlando, though, is a demented hero—in this production, a fighter pilot—and so a touch less loveliness and a touch more masculine swagger in her singing and acting would not have gone amiss. Angelica offered Heidi Stober a chance to display the brilliance of her soprano and the breadth of her acting range; I would not have recognized the ultra-feminine Angelica as being played by the same performer who was such a convincing Zdenko/Zdenka in last fall's production of Arabella. Christina Gansch brought a real flair for comedy to her portrayal of the lovelorn Dorinda. Although her singing was not always ideally on-pitch, particularly in the lower ranges of the role, she made her third-act litany of love's pleasures and pains, "Amor è qual vento" ("Love is like a blast of wind"), a delightful tour-de-force. And Christian Van Horn brought his rich bass-baritone and an appropriate hint of menace to Zoroastro.

Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro) with a supernumerary in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

The major discovery of this production was Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro. His clear, pure countertenor was the perfect vehicle for conveying Medoro's pathos; his Act II aria of longing, "Verdi allori" (Verdant trees), received a sustained ovation from the audience.

Cohen has been singing for several years with local early-music groups such as American Bach Soloists and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, but I confess nothing I had seen of him before this prepared me for how well he embodied the role of Medoro in the vastness of the War Memorial Opera House. I look forward to seeing future engagements of this artist with SF Opera.

Conductor Christopher Moulds sensitively led a 40-player modern-instrument SF Opera Orchestra. He managed the stage-pit balance astutely, never covering the singers, and the orchestra sounded ravishing. However, the tempo of the recitatives was often on the sluggish side. Recitatives are dialogue, after all, and call for a more natural conversational pace.

Despite the musical glories of Orlando, the Opera House was distressingly far from full. But audiences were also thin during the opera's first run in London. Although after the 1733 season and the defection of most of his singers Handel was able to rebuild his company—he would bring in the spectacular castrato Carestini to take Senesino's place—he never revived Orlando for his new singers. After the opera's sixth and final performance on 20 February 1733 it was not produced again for nearly 200 years.

Thanks to the period-instrument movement and scholars such as Winton Dean, in recent decades Handel has been rediscovered as an opera composer. And Orlando has justly come to be regarded as one of his greatest works. As Jane Glover writes, "its consistent and innovative excellence reflects Handel's highest level of achievement." [2] SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock should be applauded for taking the risk to produce it. As of this writing there is one more performance, on Thursday 27 June at 7:30 pm; for details see the SF Opera website.

  1. Jane Glover, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Pegasus Books, 2018, p. 207. You can count off a measure of 5/8 time as one-two one-two-three.
  2. Glover, pp. 207-208.

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