George Frideric Handel - Orlando
Theater an der Wien, Vienna - 2013
Rubén Dubrovsky, Stefania Panighini, Rupert Enticknap, Cigdem Soyarsian, Gaia Petrone, Anna Maria Sarra, Igor Bakan
Sonostream.tv Internet Streaming, 31 May 2013
There are limitations to what you can do theatrically with a work like Handel's Orlando, particularly in a small venue like the Theater an der Wien. The work itself doesn't seem to present many opportunities for dramatic action, and even the arias often seem to be poetically allusive and darkly melancholic, full of characters wrapped up in their own torments of anger, jealousy and fear. Presented here in Vienna at the Vienna Chamber Opera and a young ensemble of singers from the JET, the intricacies of Handel's musical writing and the powerful imagery of the libretto were however fully explored and brought to the fore.
Much of the strength of Handel's Orlando lies not so much within the conventional beauty of the melodies as in how they meet the expressive qualities of the setting for the libretto. It's not just an opportunity to string together a series of interchangeable arias expressing deep but generic emotional turmoil - even Handel would often reuse and recycle his own work - but an integral work with strong consistent imagery, symbolism and themes. Even as a magic opera, the intentions are not to produce stage craft and spectacle, but to explore the extremes of the human condition. Those themes are fully recognised in the stage production - directed by Stefania Panighini with sets by Federica Parolini - which is minimally dressed, but fully integrated with the tone and the intentions of the work.
The areas that Orlando explores then are very dark ones indeed. There are the familiar Baroque opera themes of love, betrayal and jealousy, with unfaithful lovers or unrequited sentiments. In Orlando however those sentiments take a darker turn into madness as Orlando, a knight in the Crusades, reacts with violence to the discovery that Angelica, the Queen of Cathay, doesn't love him but Medoro. He discovers that they are in the house of the shepherdess Dorinda, and burns the house down. It is only through the intervention of the magician Zoroastro that the situation is resolved and Orlando's mind put at ease, allowing him to return to the holy wars.
There are numerous references that express the conflict within Orlando's mind, his soul and his spirit in terms of the divisions between nature and science, between peace and war. They are not the standard references of tumultuous raging of the soul - allowing the composer to whip up musical storm effects - but to "tender flakes of falling snow melted in the sunny ray", to streams, trees, flowers, "feather'd choirs" and balmy gales in a setting of fountains and gardens conjured up by the magician Zorastro in an attempt to give Orlando respite from the violence of war and the deranged thoughts that torment him. It's even on a tree that Orlando finds the entwined engraved names of Angelica and Medoro that tips him over into madness.
The stage set used for this production at the Chamber Opera of the Theater and der Wien then is a simple one that reflects the division that has been introduced between man and nature, an outline frame representing Dorinda's house that can be reconfigured to look like a greenhouse or a birdcage depending on the context, the house adorned with plants that grow out of the heads of busts. Zoroastro's domain is also alluded to through objects that suggest a temple to magic, science, time and learning, with an anatomy model that straddles the themes of science and nature, particularly in relation to the spiritual nature of the human heart and mind. In many ways this represents the essential conflict at the core of Orlando, between the soul in love and the soul in torment.
The purity and simplicity of the stage expression of the work is reflected in the musical performance of the Bach Consort Wien conducted by Rubén Dubrovsky, and in the fresh singing of the young performers from the JET. Countertenor Rupert Enticknap is a sweet-voiced Orlando capable of great expression, if not quite reaching the extremes of the Paladin's condition. Cigdem Soyarsian, a green-haired Angelica (all the performers had punky-coloured hairstyles), also sang the role well, delivering a particularly good 'Così giusta è questa speme'. The other roles were also well presented, Anna Maria Sarra's Dorinda combining sweetness and melancholy in regard to Medoro and anguish defeat at the hands of Orlando. Medoro's role in the opera was slightly trimmed here, but Gaia Petrone made a very good impression, and Igor Bakan was a solid Zoroastro.